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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 2 July 2001


Resignation of the First Minister

North/South Ministerial Council:
Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights

Public Expenditure: June Monitoring

Oral Answers to Questions

Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment

Department for Social Development

Local Government (Best Value) Bill: First Stage

Budget (No 2) Bill: Consideration Stage

Assembly: Suspension of Standing Orders

Regional Development Strategy


The Assembly met at noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes' silence.

Resignation of the First Minister


Mr Speaker:

On 8 May 2001, as the House will be aware, I received a sealed letter from the then First Minister and a covering note in which he asked me to open and implement the sealed letter by the end of 30 June, unless I received a letter of revocation. I received no revoking letter. I opened the sealed letter as requested, and I wish to report to the House that Mr Trimble resigned as First Minister in a letter dated 1 July 2001.

I would like to try to clarify the situation for Members. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 applies. Under section 16(7)(a) the Deputy First Minister, Mr Séamus Mallon, also ceased to hold office but may continue to exercise the functions of his office until the election of a new First Minister and a new Deputy First Minister.

On 29 June I received a letter from the then First Minister, Mr Trimble, notifying me that under section 16(5)(b) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 he had designated Sir Reg Empey to exercise the functions of the office of First Minister during the period of the vacancy. Section 16(8) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 states that an election shall be held to fill the vacancies of First Minister and Deputy First Minister within a period of six weeks, that is, by 11 August. While no date has as yet been set, I will, of course, keep Members informed.

Mr Séamus Mallon has requested leave, which I have granted, to make a personal statement on the matter of his ceasing to hold office as the Deputy First Minister.

Mr P Robinson:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like to have a matter placed on record. On a previous occasion - though under different Standing Orders - what everyone believed to have been a resignation from the Deputy First Minister later transpired not to be a resignation. Would you clarify that you consider this resignation to be a resignation within the terms of the legislation, and, therefore, before anybody else can carry out the First Minister's and Deputy First Minister's functions as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, an election by the Assembly under the terms of the legislation will be required?

Mr Speaker:

The Member is correct that a circumstance arose, under different Standing Orders, where there was some confusion. On this occasion I see no possibility of any confusion. The resignation has been committed to me in writing; it is dated; I have announced it to the House; it is clear and in order; and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 applies. I trust that that confirms the matter to the satisfaction of the Member and the House.

Mr McClarty:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Now that you have confirmed that the First Minister has resigned due to the failure of Sinn Féin/IRA to honour its word and commence decommissioning, can you confirm that under section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 both Governments may exclude a political party if that party is in default? Furthermore, now that Gen de Chastelain has confirmed that the IRA has broken its word, is it not the case, under the legislation and Standing Orders, that the Assembly has only six weeks left to run and, therefore, the blame for any breakdown in the process lies squarely at the door of Sinn Féin/IRA, which has consistently broken its word?

Mr Speaker:

I can only refer to the procedural elements of the Member's comments. In relation to what the two Governments may choose to do, there is relatively little limit on what they may do legally. They can take actions within the limits of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. However, they may also take legislation through their respective Parliaments. It is not for me to rule on any legal limits. As far as the political limits are concerned, that is not a matter for me at all.

Mr McCartney:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish clarification of your ruling. I understand that you received a letter on 29 June in which the former First Minister designated another Minister to exercise his functions as First Minister. Am I right in saying that at the date of that letter, when those functions were designated, no vacancy existed in the office of First Minister - that vacancy not arising until 30 June? In those circumstances was that designation properly made?

Mr Speaker:

The terms of the letter were such that the nomination was to take place

"during any vacancy in that office" -

that is the office of First Minister -

"arising from my resignation of that office".

I have looked at the matter, and it is hard to visualise any reason - other than the current circumstances - for Parliament having voted that the clause stand part of the Bill. It does not seem to me that there are any other circumstances where that subsection could apply. Therefore the matter is in order.

Mr McCartney:

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it your ruling that a First Minister or Deputy First Minister can make a conditional appointment of a Minister to discharge his functions - conditional in the sense that that appointment is not to take place until the happening of an event which may or may not take place? In this case, Minister Empey was appointed to discharge the functions of the First Minister, but only in the event of the First Minister not having revoked his resignation - a resignation which had not at that time taken effect. Mr Speaker, the effect of that is to introduce an element of Lewis Carroll or 'Alice in Wonderland' to the procedures of the House.

Mr Speaker:

As the Member will know, this power comes under section 16(5)(b). However, let us look at section 16(5)(a) which says that it may also be done

"during any absence or incapacity of the holder".

Therefore, if it were to arise that the First Minister or Deputy First Minister was to go into hospital for an operation perhaps -

Mr McCartney:

Or become temporarily insane.

Mr P Robinson:

Or perhaps not temporarily.

Mr Speaker:

That is a circumstance where it might be wise for a number of people to consult with the Speaker.

Let us assume a circumstance where the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister had sufficient insight into an upcoming possible incapacity - for instance, going into hospital for an operation. He might therefore designate another Minister to fulfil the functions of the office. It is clear that that is the purpose of section 16(5)(a). However, it is not unknown these days - and I say this with due respect to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety - for operations to be unaccountably postponed. In advance of becoming indisposed - and this is where the question of mental incapacity does not bear - the First Minister or Deputy First Minister would have to make arrangements for his period of incapacity. Those arrangements would be conditional on the incapacity taking place, that is to say the operation proceeding.

With regard to both section 16(5)(a) and section 16(5)(b), which is the one to which the Member refers, it is only where the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister knew the probability of a matter of this kind arising - but never the certainty about what the future might hold, for that is something none of us can know, least of all Members - that he could make a nomination of this kind. It seems to me that it is in order. I cannot see that there would be any purpose in Parliament voting for this subsection unless this particular context was envisioned.

12.15 pm

Mr C Wilson:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. For the past three years other Unionists on this side of the House have appealed to Ulster Unionists such as Mr McClarty to join us in excluding those people fronting terrorist and paramilitary organisations from this body. It is rather rare and rich to hear his comments today.

Mr Speaker:

Order. Mr McClarty's point of order was about what the two Governments might or might not do. That is a separate matter.

Mr C Wilson:

Mr Speaker, I did have a point of order. It was to ask you -

Mr Speaker:

I am encouraged that there was a point of order. Perhaps in completing it the Member might refer to the Standing Order that he is making the point on.

Mr C Wilson:

I will. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will you be following the procedure of allowing Members to address the comments made by Mr Mallon in his statement?

Mr Speaker:

Under the precedent established in the circumstance to which Mr Robinson referred, I did permit leaders of parties, or nominees, to make brief comments. When Mr Mallon eventually gets the opportunity to make his personal statement, I will follow that precedent.

Mr Maskey:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Further to the point of order made by Mr McCartney - who is not someone I like to agree with very often, or would even like to own up to agreeing with - there is an important point here. Not only is the absent person absent, insofar as Mr Trimble is not here, but his nominated caretaker is not here either.

It is important to establish precisely on what legislative basis Mr Empey is being nominated as a caretaker. As you well know, Mr Speaker, Mr Trimble was recently declared to be acting unlawfully in respect of his actions in relation to the North/South Ministerial Council attendance of Bairbre de Brún and Martin McGuinness.

If Mr Empey does attend here and is nominated and accepted as a caretaker, what will be his position in respect of the unlawful action carried out by Mr Trimble? As the caretaker designated by Mr Trimble, will he be carrying on the same unlawful actions? It is important that the House be informed of the precise terms under which Mr Empey is being nominated as a caretaker.

Mr Speaker:

From the Speaker's point of view, the terms under which the nomination has been made are the legal terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I cannot enlighten the Member or the House on whether there are any political terms that exist between Mr Trimble and Sir Reg Empey.

Part of the purpose for the inclusion in the 1998 Act of the possibility of nominating a person either in respect of section 16(5)(a) or (b) is so that nominations to North/South Ministerial Council meetings and the chairing of Executive meetings and so on can continue. Those are some of the functions of the offices that could not be continued by only one person, or certainly not if neither of the offices had anyone to fulfil or exercise its functions. The Member will have to seek clarification from others on the specific question to which he addresses himself. I can only clarify the legal and technical aspects of it.

Mr Maskey:

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The reason that I was addressing the question to you was that Mr Trimble and the person that he has nominated are not here. The House is entitled to an explanation. It is not simply a question of a political arrangement between Mr Trimble and Mr Empey; it is about the Pledge of Office. The First Minister was found to be unlawful in his actions. It is important that we get clarification on this matter from you, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker:

It is important to understand that the limits on what the Speaker can rule on are those aspects of the law and Standing Orders that apply to the running of the House. They do not apply to the operation of the Executive as an Executive, which is outside my remit. Therefore I cannot respond in that regard.

Given that the Member and some of his Colleagues have taken the matter to court for resolution, they have made it clear that their understanding is that such matters must be addressed by due process through the court rather than through a ruling by the Speaker. His Colleagues, having taken the matter to court, have recognised that it is outwith my authority to rule on that matter.

Mr Beggs:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you clarify that it would not be possible to designate someone to act as First Minister after another person has stood down as First Minister, and that the letter of 29 June had to be submitted prior to 1 July?

Mr Speaker:

I can confirm that the Member is correct in that.

Mr Dalton:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Having confirmed to the House that the First Minister has resigned due to the failure of Sinn Féin/IRA to begin the process of decommissioning, can you also confirm to the House that both DUP Ministers are still in office, are still taking their salaries and are still in government with Sinn Féin/IRA?

Mr Speaker:

I cannot confirm, nor is it my position to confirm, the reasons for the former First Minister's resignation. I can simply confirm the fact that he has done so. The only other matter that I can confirm at this point - and I have already done so - is that, as required by law, the Deputy First Minister is no longer in office but continues to exercise the functions of that office, as the nominee, Sir Reg Empey, fulfils the functions of the office of First Minister.

Mr P Robinson:

Mr Speaker, can you confirm that there now is no First Minister, no Deputy First Minister, no acting First Minister and no acting Deputy First Minister, but that there is a former Deputy First Minister, who may fulfil functions of the office of Deputy First Minister for a period of up to six weeks, and that there is a Minister from the Ulster Unionist Party who is carrying out the functions of the First Minister for that same period?

Secondly, Mr Speaker, perhaps you did not get the particular point that Mr McClarty made in raising his point of order. He was asking you to look at section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and, in particular, at that subsection which allows the Secretary of State to put forward to you a notice requiring you to move a motion for the exclusion of a Minister, Ministers or a party. Can you confirm that Mr McClarty is wrong if he assumes that the Secretary of State himself can do the excluding?

Can you confirm that the Secretary of State can ask you only to put the motion before the Assembly and that it would be the Assembly Members who would have to exclude and, therefore, that when the then Deputy First Minister indicated on radio yesterday that this was a path that the Secretary of State should follow, he must logically have been indicating a willingness, if the Secretary of State were to do it, for himself, along with his party, to support such a proposition during any discussion and debate that would take place?

Mr Speaker:

The Member has raised two or three questions, some of which I can respond to from the Chair. However, some of them require the views of Mr Mallon, and it would therefore be appropriate, as soon as possible, to give him an opportunity to say what his stance will be on this matter. I can simply say that it would be in order for him to continue to fulfil or exercise the functions of the office. On whether that is what he will choose to do, the Assembly must wait to hear what Mr Mallon says.

In relation to the comments on Mr McClarty's point of order, I do try to respond directly to the questions that Assembly Members raise - which, I will admit, is a somewhat unusual discipline for a politician. The question raised by Mr McClarty was whether the two Governments could exclude, not whether a resolution of this House might exclude. I made the response, as the House will recall, that the two Governments have the ball at their toes, in that they can put through whatever legislation they choose.

In relation to the current legislation, on which the Assembly is founded, it is clear that exclusions take place by a vote of the House. That is the current situation. I cannot speak about whether the Governments will choose to do something different. If the Member refers to section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I can see nothing there that permits the Secretary of State to make an exclusion - it merely provides that he, as one of a number, may propose an exclusion. Members are familiar with that resolution procedure. Those matters should by now be relatively clear, and perhaps we can now move on to Mr Mallon's personal statement.

Leaders of parties, or their nominees, will have a chance to make a brief statement in response if they choose.

Mr Mallon:

Mr Speaker -

Mr Speaker:

Order. Mr Pat Doherty was on his feet before Mr Mallon rose.

Mr P Doherty:

A Cheann Comhairle. On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is further to Mr Maskey's point of order. Given that the proposed Deputy First Minister is not here, how is the Assembly to know whether he is prepared to take up his duties?

Mr Speaker:

The terminology is important. There is neither a proposed Deputy First Minister, nor a proposed First Minister, but simply a current Minister who is able to exercise the functions of those posts. It is not for me to determine. However, it should be clear - and this relates to an earlier point of order - that if the Member were not prepared to exercise the functions, it is now no longer possible for anyone else to be nominated. Does the Member wish to follow that point of order?

Mr P Doherty:

How do we know whether he is prepared to accept the duties, given that he is not here to say so?

Mr Speaker:

I am sure that the Member is not questioning the authority with which I made my remarks and gave my opinion. The Minister has been appointed in writing, and if he chooses not to take up that appointment, I must be notified in writing, otherwise the appointment stands.

I trust that the House will give Mr Mallon the opportunity to make his personal statement.

Mr Mallon:

Mr Speaker, I thank you for your permission to make a personal statement. I confirm that I did consult you - that is not, I hope, any reflection on my mental state of health - so that I could act in accordance with your guidance on personal statements. I make this statement out of respect for, and courtesy to, the Assembly. It is important that I clarify the situation as I see it.

Following the resignation of Mr Trimble, I no longer hold the office of Deputy First Minister. However, as the legislation provides, I will continue to exercise the functions of Deputy First Minister in the coming weeks to try to sustain the workings of the institutions.

I recognise the real contribution that Mr Trimble has made since devolution. However, I regret that he has chosen this time to precipitate this latest in a long series of crises. For the past three years I have witnessed with sadness a variety of efforts to hold the political process to ransom. Failure to commence devolution was matched, and has now been long and shamefully outlived, by failure to commence putting arms beyond use.

The blatant unwillingness of DUP Ministers to undertake the basic responsibility of ministerial office has been paralleled by deliberate efforts to wreck a carefully constructed institutional balance, particularly through a refusal to nominate Sinn Féin Ministers to the North/ South Ministerial Council. That the process remains - in difficulty but intact - reflects the fact that the agreement is owned not by politicians but by the people of Ireland, North and South, who overwhelmingly endorsed it.

Our duty is to the people we serve and, through them, to the agreement that they democratically endorsed. Every crisis and every interruption to the work of the institutions weakens our capacity to fulfil that duty. With duties come rights. As Deputy First Minister, I have worked to protect the rights of all. However, some want rights without responsibility. Some have not met their responsibilities under the agreement. In particular, three years and one day after this Assembly first met, weapons have still not been put beyond use by Republican or Loyalist paramilitaries.

Sinn Féin demands respect for its democratic mandate. I respect that democratic mandate. However, if Sinn Féin's best endeavours to put weapons beyond use have borne so little fruit, it is clear that the IRA does not respect that mandate and the obligations that go with it.

12.30 pm

The process that we are involved in should be about the legislative implementation of the agreement, but we have seen a succession of demands by Republicans and counter-demands by Unionists that go beyond it. Side letters have been written, and a series of secret deals have been entered into, to the detriment of the political process as a whole. Even so, they are never enough for either side.

No doubt, as we speak, further wish lists are in place or are under preparation for the next round of negotiations. The politics of demand for concessions needs to be overtaken by the politics of delivery on commitments made: delivery on putting arms beyond use, delivery on policing and delivery on the full and inclusive operation of the institutions.

We should all remember that the agreement is the only way that we can deliver a better future. It has already started to do so as regards enhanced provision for equality and human rights. We have developed a political consensus in the Executive and in the Assembly that has produced the first home-grown Programme for Government for over 30 years.

On this island we have better co-operation and shared actions under the North/South institutions that work for the benefit of the people of Ireland, both North and South. We have made progress in promoting investment and employment for people in the North of Ireland. Cynical party advantage must not be allowed to threaten the agreement, which was based on a collective understanding that mutual and diverse interests had to be recognised.

This is a personal statement, but the events that led to today have meant that I have ranged more widely than I perhaps should have. By continuing to exercise the functions of the Deputy First Minister, I will show my commitment to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I will work with Reg Empey and other Colleagues in the coming weeks. My challenge to those who claim to want the full implementation of the agreement is to act in a manner designed to secure that objective.

Mr Taylor:

On behalf of Ulster Unionist Members, I thank the acting Deputy First Minister for his personal statement. It was measured and reasonable in the circumstances. He mentioned the timing of the resignation of the First Minister. The timing was not of Mr Trimble's choice. The date was settled by the decision of the IRA that it would put arms beyond use by 30 June this year. That was the deadline, which the former First Minister accepted. If that event, which was well articulated by the acting Deputy First Minister - the putting of illegal arms beyond use in a way that gained the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland - did not occur, then the First Minister would resign. That was the timing of it.

I thank Mr Mallon for his tribute to the former First Minister's contribution to making the Assembly a success and to the time and effort put in by Mr Trimble into the working of the Assembly and its Executive. On occasions like this we appreciate recognition being placed on the record, and I thank Mr Mallon for that.

Northern Ireland is now in a serious situation. We have ahead of us six weeks of difficult political timing. We need to have more negotiations, and the Ulster Unionist Party is committed to trying to ensure that the Belfast Agreement is implemented in full. That means putting all illegal firearms and arsenals beyond use by all illegal groupings. That has always been our objective, and we will work towards that. We hope that it may begin in the next six weeks. If so, progress will be made in Northern Ireland. If not, however, the next stage in political developments will be to consider the exclusion from the Executive of those parties who are linked with paramilitary groups that still retain their firearms and bombs, irrespective of the desire of the people of Northern Ireland as stated in the Belfast Agreement.

Today we have to confirm that the people of Northern Ireland welcome the Belfast Agreement and what has so far come from it. We have greater peace in Northern Ireland than we have had for many years. There are improved relations between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Those are all steps forward, but the job is not finished. The people want us to finish it. I hope that developments in the next six weeks will make it possible for the Assembly to continue. If not, however, the Ulster Unionist Party's position will be that one party will have to be excluded from the Executive of the Assembly. That reality must be faced.

Mr Speaker:

There are no Standing Orders in this regard, but it would not be unreasonable if any Members who speak as leaders, or as nominees of leaders, were to restrict their comments to certainly no longer than the time used by Mr Mallon to make his statement. Since he did that within six minutes, I trust that that would be the advised time for Members.

Mr P Robinson:

Do I have to take the whole six minutes?

Mr Speaker:

Please do not feel under any compulsion of that kind. I was not making that suggestion in advance of your speech or because I was thinking particularly of you, but simply giving general advice.

Mr P Robinson:

I am grateful that you have protected my sensitivities.

I want to bring the House back down to earth. The present circumstances have been brought about because the agreement contained the seeds of its own destruction. Even though the House and its Members have refused to face up to that reality, it has now been unavoidably brought before them by the overwhelming vote of the Unionist electorate in recent elections.

As far as Mr Mallon's comments about my party are concerned, let me make it clear that my party acted wholly in accordance with its Assembly mandate. Its Ministers acted in accordance with the mandate they received from the people and which has recently been endorsed by the people. Furthermore, I agree with Mr Taylor that the only way to advance our present circumstances is for a motion to be put forward to exclude Sinn Féin/IRA from the Executive. I had hoped - although he appeared to neglect to comment on it - that the outgoing Deputy First Minister was going to advance the comments he made on radio that he was looking to the Government to put forward in this Assembly a resolution to consider that matter.

Does the Member mean that if a resolution which was not promoted initially by Unionists were brought before the Assembly, he would be prepared to consider it if Her Majesty's Government believed there to be no alternative?

If that is the case, I suspect that the earlier Her Majesty's Government advises you of their intention to act under article 30 the better. Until Sinn Féin/IRA is removed from Government, the Executive will not follow the principle that only those who believe in democratic and peaceful ways forward can be members of it. While the Provisional IRA holds on to its weapons and keeps its terror machine intact, its partner, Sinn Féin, is not entitled to be part of the democratic process - never mind being part of Government. Until that moment arrives, Sinn Féin does not have a democratic mandate; it has a mandate to do wrong that should not be recognised democratically.

I urge those who have left office to recognise that the only way forward is the way stated clearly by the Unionist electorate in the recent election, and to act in accordance with that principle: only those who are exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic means can be part of an Executive in Northern Ireland.

Mr Speaker:

As the Member's comments may have led to some uncertainty, allow me to clarify that a personal statement does not carry with it the opportunity to respond at the end to any comments that Members made.

Mr Adams:

A Cheann Comhairle. Tá Séamus Mallon anseo linn agus rinne sé ráiteas pearsanta. Níl an fear eile, David Trimble, anseo agus níl Reg Empey anseo. Níl ráiteas de shaghas ar bith againn ón bheirt sin. Rinne an tUasal Mallon a dhícheall ina phost mar Leas-Chéad- Aire. Ní aontaím leis faoi gach aon rud a ndearna sé ach sílim féin go ndearna sé a dhícheall sa phost sin.

I thank Mr Mallon for being here today and for making a personal statement. The outgoing First Minister and Reg Empey are not here; therefore, we cannot debate any of these issues with them. The Sinn Féin Chief Whip has been in contact with the other Whips to try to arrange a proper emergency debate on these matters as soon as possible. It is hoped that that will happen quickly.

I pay tribute to the former Deputy First Minister for the way that he did his job. I do not agree with much of what he said earlier, but I think that he did his best, in a difficult position, to discharge his functions with fairness and balance. He took issue with the IRA on the question of weapons: that is fair enough. That matter is between him and the IRA. However, the Member also accused Republicans of making demands that are beyond the Good Friday Agreement.

I can tell the House that as a party to the agreement I kept Mr Mallon's party fully aware of any negotiations that I was involved in that perhaps Mr Mallon inadvertently was not involved in. There are many vexed issues. It is important to point out that each party has equal responsibility for these matters. No party can stand aside or above it, or try to dole out specific responsibilities to different parties. We all have an equal responsibility.

12.45 pm

Mr Taylor, or indeed his Colleagues in the DUP, will threaten to exclude parties from the Executive over the weapons issue. I am sure that the former Deputy First Minister will agree that there is no basis for doing that. One of the problems that has put us in this position is the policy of exclusion which still underpins the current Unionist leadership's position. What is all this about? This is about a crisis that the First Minister planned and announced last October in order to bring about the suspension of the institutions and to put the blame on Republicans.

The most important point to be made is that the current leaders of the UUP and the DUP are not prepared to live on the basis of equality with their Nationalist neighbours. They are not prepared to participate in creating dispensations that are based on equity, justice and equality. I know that that view does not represent the feelings of many Unionists with whom I work.

Where does the threat to the peace process and to the political institutions come from? The threat comes from First Ministers who behave unlawfully and then walk away from their responsibilities. The threat comes from Loyalists who on a daily basis use guns to shoot Catholics and use pipe bombs and blast bombs to attack their Catholic neighbours. Those people who are heckling me now are pitifully silent on those issues. The threat also comes from within the British system itself, from those who want to return to the old days.

We are in a crisis. The British and Irish Governments must accept the fact that those of us who live in this part of Ireland are no longer prepared to have our rights and entitlements filtered through a prism of Unionism. The British Prime Minister currently has jurisdiction over this part of Ireland. Therefore, he and the Taoiseach have a responsibility to move ahead with all aspects of the agreement that they are obliged and able to deal with.

Mr Speaker:

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Mr Adams:

There can be no more ad hoc or crisis management. The two principal players must work together.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member's time is up.

Mr Ford:

It is right that every party in the Chamber should begin by paying tribute to the work that Mr Trimble has done over the past five to six years. We can all recognise the way in which he took his party forward and participated in the talks process. The way in which Mr Trimble led his party into this institution has taken the party further forward than any of his predecessors have.

We can understand the frustrations that Mr Trimble experienced in recent years. There is no doubt that the failure of Loyalists and Republicans to live up to their obligations to remove arms and put them beyond use has created enormous difficulties. Of course, that has not been the only difficulty. Unionists perceived that the SDLP refused to move on the issue of policing, and that has been equally difficult to deal with. Others can point the finger back at Unionists for their actions. Although I still believe that the agreement has brought this society closer to peace, one has only to listen to the comments in the Chamber this morning to know that we are every bit as far away from reconciliation as we ever were.

Mr Trimble's resignation may be understandable because of his frustration. However, there is no doubt that that has been deeply destabilising to the entire process. There is no way that we can make progress as a political society in Northern Ireland unless we operate on the basis that parties must meet as equals around a negotiating table. The unilateral ultimatum, whatever its concerns may have been, merely appears to others to be a way for the UUP to work out its fears about the electoral process. It did not appear to be a real attempt to get the process working.

We can take some heart from Mr Mallon's earlier comments in which he seemed to suggest that the way is now open for a proper and truly collective approach to getting the process working again. It is up to the two Governments to convene that process, but it is also up to each party to play its part in bringing that process forward openly and honestly. We should all look to ourselves, as well as to others, to firmly live up to the obligations that we undertook in the agreement.


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