Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 9 November 1998
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (The Initial Presiding Officer (The Lord Alderdice of Knock) in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
By virtue of paragraph 1 of the schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, it falls to the Secretary of State to determine where and when meetings of the Assembly shall be held. I have received from the Secretary of State a letter directing that the Assembly shall meet at Parliament Buildings, Stormont at 10.30 am on Monday 2 November until 6.00 pm on Monday 30 November.
During the last sitting, there was comment about remarks allegedly made by some Members, and I was asked to give a number of rulings. I have studied the Official Report and have listened to sections of the tape recording of proceedings. I have also taken advice on certain matters. Neither the Official Report nor the tapes of proceedings picked up any comments of the kind alleged to have been made by Rev William McCrea. Remarks made by some Members sailed a little close to the wind, and I request Members to observe more closely the courtesies and respect due in the Chamber.
In the case of some other interventions, I have issued formal, written cautions to those concerned, and I must advise the House that repetition of such transgressions will inevitably lead to disciplinary action. Let me be more specific: however justified Members may feel about making criticisms of me as an individual — and I have no doubt that such criticism is, on occasion, justified — it is my responsibility to be the current guardian of the dignity of the Chair. I must therefore advise that criticisms in the Chamber of the Chair should be made only on a substantive motion, as is the rule elsewhere. They should not be made incidentally in debate.
My second ruling concerns the reading of newspapers in the Chamber. This is clearly discourteous to other Members, especially those speaking at the time. Newspapers should not be brought into or read in the Chamber, except for brief quotations in the context of a speech. Furthermore, should this or any similar device be used with the possible intention of embarrassing a Member, it will be ruled out of order.
Finally, I must remind Members that it is not acceptable to accuse other Members of telling lies. This is a clear rule. Members may be said to be misinformed, misguided or mistaken, but they may not be accused of lying — that is unparliamentary language.
A Chathaoirligh, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, I should like to make a point of order relating to your last remarks on unparliamentary language and your judgement on that. It is remarkable that part of the substance of the complaints that I made at the last sitting of the Assembly has been lumped in with your complaints. Perhaps I should have put forward a motion on your handling of that business. However, I would appreciate your views on the transcript of a remark attributed to Paul Berry. This is recorded on page 236 of Hansard of 26 October.
Mr C Wilson:
On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
This is, I understand, a point of order.
Mr C Wilson:
On what basis are you dealing with this business?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I am taking Mr Maskey’s remarks as a point of order. They are clearly a query about my conduct of the proceedings. I cannot take a point of order on a point of order.
A Chathaoirligh, I want to make the specific point that in Hansard Mr Berry is reported as having referred to a full terrorist organisation in the Tyrone area. It is my understanding, and that of other Members, that those were not the words used. I would like you to investigate the accuracy of Hansard and report back to the Assembly. I am not certain that the report is accurate.
I should also draw your attention to the substance of Mr Berry’s remarks as recorded in Hansard. They are quite disgraceful and bear out the criticism levelled at you at that time.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I made it clear at the time — as I think Hansard shows — that I was not content with some of the remarks and their tone. In that context, I have followed the matter up. All Members are learning procedure and what is appropriate behaviour in the Chamber. For example, one of the reasons the Initial Presiding Officer stands is to indicate to other Members that they should sit down — and we have just had such a situation.
I have tried in these first sittings to be reasonably flexible and understanding for I am aware that, while some Members have experience of various elected bodies, others have limited or no experience. To that end I have prepared one or two sheets of advice about procedure, which I hope will be of help to Members and will give them some confidence when participating in debate.
I am content that the rulings I have given and the cautions I have issued to Members, even since the last sitting, have been appropriate.
Mr Maskey has asked me to look at the accuracy of Hansard. I will certainly do so.
Mr McCartney rose.
The First Minister (Designate) (Mr Trimble):
On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
A point of order, and then —
I think I was first on my feet, but if there is a pecking order, you are clearly observing it.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I have already drawn Members’ attention to the fact that, while criticism of me personally may be quite understandable, criticism of the Chair in that way is not helpful.
Mr Initial Presiding Officer —
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I have not yet sat down.
The First Minister (Designate):
Mr Initial Presiding Officer, my point of order concerns earlier rulings — in particular, your references to newspapers and other papers. Was the action entirely appropriate? I am familiar with the practice at Westminster, where it is assumed that we have no papers and deliver speeches off the top of our heads in excellent English. That is the culture there.
To what extent is your ruling influenced by that culture? I recall that when we decided on the Assembly layout, and particularly this format with desks, the idea was to create a slightly different culture in this place. The desks are an acknowledgement that Members will have papers in front of them.
Perhaps you would like to reflect on your ruling, bearing in mind that deliberate decision to try to create a slightly different culture here. While I have the greatest respect for the practices and procedures of the House of Commons, I wonder whether this is simply a case of following all its rulings as if there were no difference in terms of layout.
Further to that point of order, Mr Presiding Officer. It is quite illogical and inaccurate to suggest that because there are desks, Members should be allowed to bring in newspapers to be used in the way that one was used at our previous sitting. The desks are purely for our convenience for the placing of papers. They are not an invitation to read newspapers or a place on which to rest our elbows while we wave newspapers to display some notice on them.
If the desks are intended to support a change of culture to that type of behaviour, it is not a culture that I wish to be involved in or associated with.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
Both points of order addressed the same matter. First, I have been addressing the question of newspapers — not briefing papers or other such documents. I can understand that Members may wish to refer to documents, such as briefings, advice on speeches or notes and so on. I am referring specifically to newspapers.
There may be times when Members will wish to refer to newspapers and quote from them in the context of a speech. However, it was drawn to my attention that at the last plenary sitting a Member had brought in a newspaper and had conducted himself in a way that was intended to embarrass.
I viewed the video recording, and I have no doubt that that is a possible interpretation of the behaviour at that time. I have therefore ruled in regard to newspapers. For anyone to openly read a newspaper, other than in making a quotation, is a discourtesy to the House and to other Members, particularly the one who is speaking. I intend to hold to that ruling. [Interruption]
I am reminded of my ruling about mobile telephones, which seems to have been transiently breached, and I again advise Members that I wish to hold to that ruling. I am sure all Members will agree.
Mr P Robinson:
I support entirely your ruling, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. It is the only sensible one in the circumstances, although some Members may wish to hold up a newspaper whose headlines speak more eloquently than they ever could. [Laughter]
I was one of those involved in determining the layout of the Chamber. I draw to your attention, lest in the number of points of order it go by default, that there was no intention — unless it was subconscious — to conduct business according to the type of wood in or the layout of the Chamber. There is no commitment to accept the present layout beyond the initial period, after which we will return to the matter, perhaps to decide a better arrangement.
Some Members are aware that I am the one who was reading the newspaper at the last sitting. At no time did I wave the newspaper. I sat and read it. It contained an article about a matter concerning designation that had been raised by Mr Foster. I was surprised to discover from the article that, although in the House we are "Unionist", "Nationalist" or "Other", one party is all three. I thought that an important matter, and I wanted to read about it.
However, I accept your ruling, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I will not read newspapers in the House if they might embarrass Members.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I am not sure in what context that matter has been raised. It does not seem to be a point of order. I described Mr Foster’s point of order on the matter as most ingenious because it was more a political point. I have viewed the video tape and given my ruling.
I beg to move
That the Assembly approves the report prepared by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution and agrees to forward it to the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons.
The Ad Hoc Committee was established by the Assembly on 14 September 1998 in response to a press notice from the Procedure Committee at Westminster. At its first meeting I was elected Chairman, and I am grateful to the members of the Committee for their unanimous support and for the co-operation and commitment they have demonstrated throughout the Committee’s work.
The Committee understood its remit to be the assessment of the changes that might be required to procedures at Westminster. It did not consider the procedural arrangements for the Assembly, and I have written to you separately about these matters.
Procedural consequences constitute an unusual and difficult subject, and an unfamiliar area for most members of the Committee. Initially we had difficulty in establishing the context. There was uncertainty about the Northern Ireland Bill, an absence of comparable Scottish and Welsh bodies, and a lack of agreed procedures in the Assembly.
The Committee chose to flesh out its collective knowledge through presentations. Members heard from an academic lawyer and a retired senior civil servant. We took advice from the Cabinet Office and from others on some of the more detailed aspects of our brief including the relationship with Europe. Copies of the written evidence that was submitted to the Committee have been placed in the Library, together with the minutes of proceedings. The Committee is grateful for the considerable assistance and general willingness of many people to help with its work. Most of the advice was offered on an informal and non-attributable basis, and I offer only a general note of gratitude to those who helped.
The Committee offered recommendations in two identified areas. First, we referred to Westminster procedures which the Committee felt should be modified; secondly, we referred to Westminster procedures which might be modified in the light of developments.
The key principles recognise the primacy of Westminster and the reality, in effect, of devolution — that for most people in Northern Ireland the Assembly would, de facto, be the Government. The Committee disagreed on only one area — that of the primacy of Westminster — and that required a vote at its last meeting. This is a factual matter with which some parties had difficulty. Apart from that, we agreed on most matters.
Consequently, the Committee recommends that Westminster should introduce changes to its handling of Questions on devolved matters, changes in how public expenditure on devolved matters is scrutinised and changes to the roles of Westminster Committees which focus on Northern Ireland. In practical terms this may mean an end to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, considerable contraction to the remit of the Northern Ireland Select Committee — with a counter-balancing increase in the responsibilities of Assembly Committees — and perhaps a new system for consulting the Assembly on European legislative proposals. The overriding factor is that we are giving our views on this. These remain, and will remain, questions for Members at Westminster to decide.
The report also confirms the relationship between Westminster and the Assembly, the authority of Westminster to scrutinise devolved arrangements through parliamentary questions and the continuing importance of Northern Ireland MPs in considering reserved and excepted matters.
One further, and topical, area of interest is that of the relationship with Europe. At present, proposals for EU legislation are channelled through Member states for consideration by domestic legislatures. There are about 1,200 proposals every year. These are whittled down, on grounds of relevance or effect, to about 50 for further action. The issue arises over how to provide for an input from the devolved Assemblies. The Committee believes there are sound financial reasons for not duplicating the initial sift of the 1,200 proposals. It would prefer consideration to be given to the 50 or so proposals that go to the EU Standing Committees at Westminster.
The Westminster Committee that deals with European legislation has indicated that it would be content to provide the Assembly with all its information on these proposals. This would give Members an opportunity to focus on the consideration of the most significant issues. Of course, it is for the Assembly to decide how else it wishes to be heard in Brussels, and I expect that this will be the subject of further consideration following our visit last week.
Other issues for further consideration include the impact of the Northern Ireland Bill when it becomes law, the relationship between this Assembly and the devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales once they are set up, and the wider issue of how this body will conduct its business. Indeed, the Assembly may wish to form its own Procedure Committee.
Mr Initial Presiding Officer, I would be grateful if you were to consider the issues that I have raised with you.
In closing, I wish to pay tribute to the Clerk of the Committee, who has provided outstanding support and service — often late into the night. We were on a tight timescale, and this required a great deal of extra work.
In addition, I wish to thank my fellow Committee members and commend their efforts. I want to pay tribute to the pragmatic, yet principled, approach taken by all of them as they identified the key issues and worked together to agree recommendations.
I am reminded of a House of Commons Committee Clerk who said famously that a committee was a cul-de-sac up which good ideas were led, there to be quietly strangled.
Throughout the seven meetings during which we produced a 4,000-word report with more than a dozen practical recommendations, there was rarely any disagreement. I have pointed out the one key area where there was disagreement as a result, I believe, of misunderstandings and simple drafting preferences. The real success that might emerge in this debate is that the Committee members sat down together and produced a report which was unanimously agreed, and I commend the report to the Assembly.
I support the report and commend Mr McFarland and the Committee for their excellent work. The procedural consequences of devolution for the people of Northern Ireland are not just administrative, and we must consider the actuality, the real intent. We have come a long way. The democratic deficit in Northern Ireland, which has lasted so long, is on the point of being left behind. Democracy almost prevails once again. That is important to us.
I agree with paragraph 44 of the report:
"In many respects the full impact of these changes can only be addressed when the system has become fully operational."
That is the effective reality of devolution, and Ulster Unionists have always sought such intent. We have endeavoured to be constructive for the overall well-being of the people of the Province. We have been positive while others — and they are present today — have sought the downfall of the Northern Ireland state through various methods of non-co-operation. Some have used so-called constitutional methods, while others have used the bomb and the bullet. We sincerely trust that such abhorrent and incredibly devious methods are now in the past. We look to the future. The potential is tremendous, and goodwill is evident throughout the world.
Most of us have just come back from Brussels where we heard the European Union’s words of good intent echoed over and over again. Those who fail to live up to such goodwill will face the world’s scorn. A real decision-making parliament within the United Kingdom is round the corner. It will provide the strength and resolve to make decisions for Northern Ireland, and those decisions will be made by the Northern Ireland people. We have yearned for that for the past three decades. There is room for all of us by such democratic means. Indeed, there can be no other way. Surely no one wants a return to destruction. Will the people ever forgive us if we fail in our task?
I agree that we are subordinate to the sovereign Government at Westminster. As an Ulster Unionist, I am pleased that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland has been copper-fastened by the British/Irish Good Friday Agreement. However, the spirit of that Agreement is being derailed by some with only ulterior motives. To achieve good government, we are all required to work for the common good of the people of Northern Ireland. They, and no others, elected us.
The base must be Stormont — and the first principle of good government is a home base. Secondly, honesty, integrity and responsibility must prevail, and good citizenship is of the essence. The Agreement encapsulates such requirements. If there were honesty and integrity, there would be immediate action on the issue of decommissioning. Cross-community trust and mutual respect would then prevail, and together we could look at economic and social issues and try to deal with them in a united way.
There are many issues to be faced. Employment problems, the acute agriculture crisis, education and health and personal social services require our attention.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
Order. The debate is on the procedural consequences for the House of Commons of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I have listened with some interest to the Member, but I am not sure that his speech bears on the matter that is before the Assembly. I must ask him to try to address the question which is to hand.
I am dealing with the consequences and responsibilities that we will have in government.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
Order. The report is not about the procedural consequences of devolution for the Assembly. It is about the procedural consequences of devolution for the House of Commons, and I ask the Member to try to draw his remarks in that direction. I have been fairly lenient and fairly broad in my acceptance of his remarks.
Progress towards government can move forward, but everyone must be committed. The serious moral issue of decommissioning cannot be ignored within this parliament of ours which we seek. The Assembly will be a parliament for Northern Ireland. We are working under the Westminster Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government, and I am pleased about that.
An important situation confronts Northern Ireland. Decommissioning is a big issue which I must argue before we get round to dealing with procedures. We need decommissioning now — not next week or next year. One cannot take out a mortgage if one does not face responsibility.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
The Member must understand that my ruling was fairly clear, and I must ask him to abide by it.
Mr A Maginness:
The compilation of this report proved to be a very useful political exercise for the Assembly. Instead of its being a cul-de-sac, it opened up a highway of opportunity for all the Committee’s members. It brought us to a number of important and crucial issues, and it allowed us to examine them in relative calm and without serious contention or dispute.
It was an interesting political experiment for this Assembly in that we were trying to achieve political consensus in the context of an Assembly Committee. It is a subject that was likely to excite political opinion on all sides, and so it did. Nonetheless, we should congratulate the Committee on having reached consensus on all its major recommendations, and there was little dispute about the substance of the report.
It was an achievement, and it sets an example for the Assembly as to how we should approach political issues in the future. The word "consensus" does not mean hanging up or throwing out one’s political principles; it means reaching as much of a political agreement as one can within the context of the subject under discussion.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
The Committee reached consensus — and I recognise the clarity of the issue — but after what the Member has said today I am somewhat concerned about why, in Committee, he then voted against the final wording of the report.
Mr A Maginness:
Of course, my party and I did not vote against the report. We support its recommendations, together with the substance of its text. There was disagreement on only one part of the text. Therefore my address to the Assembly remains consistent with the position that we adopted in the Committee.
Let me give credit to Mr McFarland for his independent and skilful chairmanship of the Committee. It was his approach that led to our achieving consensus, and the House owes him a considerable debt.
The report is well presented in terms of both its text and its arguments. It reflects the substantial shift in the political centre of gravity from London to Belfast and recognises the change in political culture which has been reflected in the setting up of this Assembly.
Transferred matters will be of primary concern to this House, not Westminster, and substantial changes will flow from that by way of how Westminster deals with Northern Ireland. This has been reflected in the report where we have recommended that the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons modifies the Standing Orders of the Northern Ireland Select and Grand Committees. That will reflect the fact that a substantial amount of decision-making will flow to this House.
When the House of Commons considers the future of Select Committees it may decide to change or restrict them. One cannot second-guess, but that may apply in particular to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs.
This report is useful because it enables us to examine issues that we did not expect to examine. I mention in particular the issue of European legislation because this body must consider seriously its input to the shaping, framing and amendment of EU legislation. This is an important matter for the Assembly, and we must examine procedures for influencing the input of the Administration at Westminster to European legislation. Such legislation is, of course, the province of the Commission and the European Parliament, but the preliminaries for devising and framing it are matters for Westminster and, let us hope, in part, the Assembly.
It is important to return to the issue of European legislation, and I suggest that the Assembly set up its own European Committee to consider not only European legislation but the wide gamut of European issues, of which this House is more conscious as a result of the visit to Brussels last week. It is important for us to support this useful report. Members should read it in detail and draw conclusions from it.
There will be future work for the Committee. The Northern Ireland Bill has not completed its passage through the House of Commons, and there remains the setting up of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Serious questions for us to re-examine will arise from these matters.
I commend the report to the House. It was a useful political exercise, successfully completed, and it provides a model for the future. If we work in future as well as we did on the report we will make considerable progress in creating real and sustained consensus, and that must be for the good of our constituents.
Rev William McCrea:
I join the Committee Chairman in welcoming the report, which was commissioned under the Assembly’s terms of reference that are mentioned in paragraph 2:
"to consider the procedural consequences of devolution as they are likely to affect the relationship between, and working of, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the United Kingdom Parliament."
At times the Chairman of the Committee had difficulty in focusing some members’ attention on the Committee’s remit and duty; on how its deliberations would affect the Procedure Committee at Westminster; and on the changes which may be necessary in procedures at Westminster in the light of devolution.
Discussion and debates in Committee were wide-ranging. The successful presentation of the report is due to the diligent manner in which the subject was approached, the expert presentations and the work of the Committee Clerk.
The subject matter is of primary importance. The establishment of appropriate procedures at Westminster — the sovereign Parliament — must not be overlooked. Some Members have placed interpretations on the report. I say to the Chairman and to Mr Maginness that they are trying to put a slant on the report which is not there. In the Belfast Agreement there was tremendous emphasis on trying to dilute the power and authority of the sovereign Parliament at Westminster and at the same time a strengthening of the relationship with Dublin. That is one of the reasons I and my colleagues voted against the Agreement and make no apology for so doing.
Northern Ireland’s finances come from and are voted on at Westminster. It is therefore vital that lines of communication be clear and that ties with the national Parliament remain strong. The report acknowledges the vital role of Westminster, but the interpretation that some are putting on it seems to play down the primacy of Parliament. The essential role of the Members of Parliament must be preserved rather than diminished. Some on the Committee shied away from parliamentary scrutiny and said that there might not be a role for the Select and Grand Committees at Westminster. However, that is not what paragraph 8 says. It states
"In April 1998 the agreement of parties in Northern Ireland led, following elections, to the establishment of a shadow Assembly to which power would be devolved early in 1999. Paragraph 33 of Strand One of the Agreement describes the continuing role for Westminster and in particular confirms a continuing role for the Grand and Select Committees."
The Agreement confirmed the continued role of the Grand and Select Committees. The impression has been given that major changes should be made. However, while modifications may have to be made, we must remember that he who pays the piper has the right to call the tune. Are we suggesting that while Westminster gives the money for the running of Northern Ireland, Members of Parliament will have no power of scrutiny of how that money is being spent? That money is important for Northern Ireland, and Members of Parliament should have the right to ensure that it is used in the best interests of the citizens of this part of the United Kingdom.
During our discussions, the key principles were outlined in paragraph 9. It states
"The Northern Ireland Act 1998 will set out the legislative competence of the Assembly. The provisions of the Northern Ireland Bill explicitly emphasise that the United Kingdom Parliament retains the power to legislate on any subject throughout the United Kingdom."
Note the words
"explicitly emphasise that the United Kingdom Parliament retains the power to legislate on any subject throughout the United Kingdom."
Some Members wanted to sideline Westminster completely and give the impression that all we want is to take the money and say "Goodbye." The previous draft of the report stated clearly
"Essentially the fundamental basis for the relationship between the Assembly and Westminster lies in the clear understanding that matters which are transferred to the Assembly are its responsibility and its responsibility alone."
That was removed, as was the recommendation that, following devolution, transferred matters should become essentially the sole preserve of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Paragraph 13 previously stated
"The Committee believes that, as was previously the case under devolution, questions on transferred matters should be taken only in the Assembly. Questions to Ministers in the House of Commons should be ruled out of order and referred to Belfast. Questions on transferred matters are matters for the Northern Ireland Assembly and should not be taken at Westminster."
All those statements were removed. I had the privilege and honour of being a Member of that House for 14 years. Those remaining at Westminster and those who desire to go there will certainly want to ensure that their constituents get the best possible government. If there are matters that they think the Assembly is not handling correctly they have a right to raise them at Westminster. There ought to be open democracy, whether it be in this Chamber or in —
Will the Member give way?
Rev William McCrea:
No, for I am finishing.
The report acknowledges that there are important issues that need further detailed scrutiny. We flagged some of them as we came across them, though not all were strictly within our present remit. This is not a final report. It will be necessary to revisit many of the issues in the light of experience. However, I genuinely feel that the report will make a valuable contribution to the development of procedures at Westminster, permitting Members of the national Parliament to retain a vital and important role in the democratic process, and allowing us to exercise the power which has been devolved to us.
I wish once again to compliment all those who helped in the preparation of this report, especially the Committee Clerk, and to note the vital role that the Chairman of the Committee, Mr Alan McFarland, played in our deliberations. I commend the report to the Assembly.
Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh, I would like to join the other Committee members in commending the Chairperson, Mr Alan McFarland, for presiding over, with great difficulty at times, the preparation of a report which, as Sinn Fein stated when the interim report was presented, was, in essence, premature. However, in terms of learning, this was a valuable process, and the Committee’s members addressed themselves to the remit. It was an interesting political exercise.
There was substantial agreement on many of the questions posed by the remit, including the transferred matters and co-operation with other assemblies. There are also glaring omissions, such as the procedural consequences of devolution in the context of the North/South bodies. Most members worked their way through the many constitutional questions raised by the remit, but others sought to put their own political spin on it. This was not in the spirit either of learning or of the Good Friday Agreement.
The final draft of the report was given to the Committee on Friday 30 October, shortly before the meeting began. Sinn Fein noted a number of changes, or additions, to the draft that had been presented to us at the bilateral meeting and on which we had agreed in principle. What appears to have happened, a Chathaoirligh, in respect of paragraph 9 is that the text has been added to in a manner which, I believe, goes beyond what the Committee was asked to do.
Some aspects of the draft document still present that difficulty. Instead of commenting, as we were asked to do, the report tells Parliament what it should do. Unionist representatives on the Committee — and this is where the disagreement comes in — engaged in a semantic exercise designed to appear to tighten the relationship between the Assembly and Westminster. This is not within the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
Devolution apart, the Six Counties Assembly is equated with the projected devolution in Scotland and Wales, although these bodies have not been set up. The North of Ireland Assembly and the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies are set up under different Acts and with widely differing powers. The processes cannot be equated.
The remit of the Ad Hoc Committee was simply to consider or comment on the changes necessary and the constitutional implications for Westminster as a consequence of the legislation resulting from the Good Friday Agreement. The additions to paragraph 9, beginning at the third line from the bottom, obviously relate to the Unionist strategy of seeking to entrench the Union, in spite of the all-island dynamics of the Good Friday Agreement.
This exercise, played out in the bilaterals, is essentially about plugging holes in the initial draft, which left the relationship with Westminster too much of a hostage to fortune. Neither draft — not even the final one — takes cognisance of the fact that the concept of sovereignty over the Six Counties has changed inalterably. However, the draft document presented to the Committee on 30 October, and currently before the Assembly, represents a clear shift away, in spirit and in substance, from the essential implications of the Good Friday Agreement for Westminster’s relationship with the Assembly. It is these implications, and their constitutional significance, which profoundly distinguish this Assembly from what is planned for Scotland, Wales and, indeed, England — something with which the Unionists in the Committee refused to deal.
It is for that reason that we had their attempts in the bilaterals to rewrite the draft in the same way as they attempt to rewrite the Good Friday Agreement. The amendments are tied up with their anachronistic political assumption — the assumption of Thatcher — that Belfast is as British as Finchley. It is not. We have moved on, a Chathaoirligh, and the Devolution Committee at Westminster in its press release, which became the remit for this Ad Hoc Committee, recognised that.
That is why they sought our comments. That is why my party objected to the Unionists’ conclusions, which refused to recognise that sovereignty is redefined by the Good Friday Agreement and that this addition to the previously agreed draft was, and still is, unnecessary.
In spite of the Committee Chairman’s assertions that there was agreement on the report — there was, in many instances — it was not unanimous. It would therefore be in the best interests of the Committee and of the Assembly to refer back to the Committee a number of issues arising from the report so that unanimity could be reached before it is sent to Westminster.
I too pay tribute to the Chairperson and to the Clerk for his very hard work, late hours and the manner in which he provided us with all the necessary documents. Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh.
I recall the Assembly’s meeting on 5 October, when the Committee presented its interim report. Mr Peter Robinson asked me if I was confident that the Committee could produce a good report by the new deadline. I expressed my hope that a full report, which would be educational and helpful to Members, could be produced by the new deadline, which is today, 9 November. We have met our deadline and produced a full report, which will help Members to understand better the relationships between the Assembly and Westminster.
The report, in its various recommendations, looks forward to full devolution of powers to the Assembly. It clearly demonstrates the necessity to equip those to whom power has been devolved with the necessary authority to exercise it. I therefore caution those who use phrases such as "He who pays the piper". This is not a puppet parliament, nor a Fisher Price parliament. The Assembly will exercise real power on those issues that are transferred to it. And that is the significant part. We will have that right. In fact, we demand it.
This afternoon, when the Minister outlines his priorities on public expenditure, for example, I hope to hear Members’ views on how taxpayers’ moneys should be spent here. We have the right to determine our priorities and produce the best package for the people. That is part and parcel of the relationship between here and Westminster. We want to exercise power without undue interference.
The report deals with all the salient issues. We have also earmarked other areas that the Assembly needs to examine. For example, reference has been made to European legislation, an understanding of which is an essential part of political life for us. I believe that the Assembly must have a European Committee, but it will be up to the House to take that issue further. Proper procedures must be established now to enable us to reach fundamental decisions on how to move forward on those areas.
In commending the report to the House, I would be remiss not to pay special tribute to the Committee’s Chairman, Mr McFarland, and its Clerk. Together, they led the work of the Committee. They demonstrated, through diplomacy and dialogue, that it is possible to reach understandings and agreements, of which this report is a product.
I had not intended to speak in this debate but I have been so impressed with the plethora of nauseating, self-congratulatory compliments that have been flying about that I find it necessary to inject a note of realism into the proceedings. This Committee was not, as appears to be the case, playing happy families. Its members attended, as I did, having been charged with a particular duty — dealing with the remit.
Much has been said about the great work that is being done and the great endeavours that are being made. A competent lawyer, had he been furnished with the relevant material, could have reached the same conclusions in half a day.
Mr S Wilson:
What would he have charged?
The prophet of a magnificent report has asked a question. The answer is considerably less than the salaries of those who were actually involved.
The impression is being given, particularly by Mr Maginness, the Member for North Belfast, that this was a sort of chapel of consensual ecumenism. It was nothing of the sort.
One may oppose, as I most strongly do, Sinn Fein’s views — their political objectives as well as their methodology — but when it came to the issues that are important to them, they made it clear what they wanted. They wanted the removal of all the references in this report to the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament. They made no bones about that, and there was a very heated, but honest, debate about the issue of sovereignty. What was most notable was that the party representatives who voted against the inclusion of the term "sovereignty" in paragraph 9 of this report were not from Sinn Fein (its members abstained); they were Mr Maginness and his colleague Mr Dallat.
The truth is that beneath all this apparently consensual behaviour, other agendas and directions are being constantly pushed. They are being pushed in the direction of a united Ireland by the SDLP as assiduously as by Sinn Fein, but with a much lesser degree of open honesty.
I want to turn to two relevant issues — one being the question of our association with Europe. Those from the pro-Union side who were on this Committee and who were also involved in the trip to Brussels should realise that those on the other side of this Assembly favour Northern Ireland’s becoming some sort of autonomous region within Europe and being entitled to a direct input.
Indeed, the silliness of this argument, in its most extreme form, was advanced by Mr Farren, who failed to realise that the only people who can make a direct commitment are the member states, and there is no member state entitled "Northern Ireland". A fatuous and irrelevant association with the regions in Europe, particularly the German Länder, was advanced at one of the meetings that we had with a member of the European Parliament, Herr Brock. He made it quite clear that there was a fundamental distinction between a unitary sovereign state with devolved mixed legislatures and a federal government such as the Federal Government of what is now a united Germany.
All the time, however, despite the appearance of consensus, people were pushing their own agendas and pushing hard for a united Ireland. Let no one be mistaken about that. Something else which will become increasingly apparent to Members of the Assembly who are not part of the central caucus is the enormous amount of mutual back-scratching and self-congratulation that is going on in the two major parties who appear to think that they can run the Assembly on their own and that all the other parties are irrelevant. That will not be the case, but that will not prevent them from trying to make it happen. Excitement at the prospect of office is causing one party to suffer convulsions, and, no doubt, the other is about to become epileptic.
Members should have no doubts about the intended purpose of this report. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will remain part of the United Kingdom, and we should endeavour to ensure that this situation is permanent. Those people, supposedly on the pro-Union side, who are pussyfooting around with arrangements designed, apparently, to keep them in a position of power should be conscious that this is not possible, because decommissioning and other related issues are, beyond any doubt, not part of the Agreement. They are not in the Agreement because some people were prepared to acquiesce in a dishonest process. This Committee, to a very large extent, reflected that problem.
The report, however, does state relatively clearly what the Committee’s response to its remit was. That remit was not particularly complex; the Committee looked at those powers which were transferred to the Assembly, those powers which were excepted and reserved to Westminster and at the question of the future handling of business currently dealt with by bodies at Westminster.
The report deals with these matters adequately; Mr McFarland was a tolerant and understanding Chairman, and the Committee Clerk was assiduous, efficient and courteous at all times, providing a great deal of assistance to the Committee. However, we should not persist in the nonsensical belief that members of Committees are involved in a prodigious volume of work.
I attended meetings of this Committee as frequently as anyone; I participated in the Committee’s debates as much as any member — if not more — but I cannot pretend that I was burdened with an enormous amount of work, nor was I required to expend a vast amount of intellectual energy.
I commend this somewhat less than magnificent report to the House.
I would like to pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee. Even though the report’s findings did not receive unanimous support, he was certainly unanimously elected as Chairman — a first time for that. He conducted those proceedings which I attended very well, and he was ably assisted by the Committee Clerk who also deserves credit for his work in the short time that we had to put this report together.
Unfortunately, I detect a sense of resentment in relation to this report — resentment that, I fear, comes from Sinn Fein, who are almost suggesting that this report is not in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. But to do so is to miss the most important part. Northern Ireland shall remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as the greater number of people wish.
This fact is reflected adequately and of necessity in this report; it is about the creation of a tier of government and how it fits into that tier of government which undoubtedly has primacy, and that primacy is clearly identified, not only in the Belfast Agreement, but also in our work and the fact that we have a Secretary of State. Sinn Fein’s apparent self-denial of all these things is a form of resentment from which they would do well to move away.
On the basis that I have been sold out, I am delighted to hear that Northern Ireland is going to remain part of the United Kingdom. Hansard will show that Mr McCartney said so. Of course, he would.
The establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly provides the opportunity to exercise power locally through the Belfast Agreement, within the context of the sovereignty of a Parliament at Westminster. This Committee had a job to do in terms of how we are to fit in and how to create circumstances where this could be seen as the first salvo perhaps, the first in the establishment of a two-way street between Westminster and Belfast. Such conditions will not weaken the umbilical cord; they will strengthen it.
This will not be the only umbilical cord; one will also be connected to Cardiff, to Edinburgh and to Dublin, and these will begin to deal with healing the relationships that have been fractured over many years.
This is a recommendation — a recommendation that will land on the desks at Westminster, and it will be decided on by those who have sovereignty. All we can hope is that they pay attention to what we want to achieve. By recommending this report we are saying here is a Belfast that wants to prosper, here is a Belfast that wants to do well, a Belfast that recognises that it has to have stronger relationships, not weaker.
This Assembly is devolved — not divorced — from Westminster, and some Members must pay serious attention to that fact. They will have to make all the facets of the Belfast Agreement work. Are we accusing Sinn Fein as they have accused us in the past, of being á la carte in relation to the Good Friday Agreement? It is time for Sinn Fein to wake up and play a serious role — this should have been a unanimous report. I hope that Sinn Fein will reflect and amend their attitude to what, I think, is a very good report — a report which is the first salvo in the strengthening of the umbilical cord between Belfast and Westminster.
Many Members seem to have become confused about what the Committee set out to do. I would like to refer to the points made by Mr McCartney, Mr McCrea and Mrs Nelis about devolution.
Good Friday Agreement or not, devolution, whether in Northern Ireland or Scotland, equals a dilution of power. There is no getting away from that fact. Devolution means diluting power at the centre and transferring it to the regions. It means strengthening the power of this Assembly in Northern Ireland and strengthening the power of the people of Northern Ireland. For some reason we have not yet grasped the full meaning of devolution. Mr McCartney referred to the German federalist system, but devolution within the United Kingdom is in a United Kingdom context. It could be seen as a first step towards federalism, towards confederalism or towards subsidiarity.
We have to appreciate that devolution is a dilution of power.
Mrs Nelis said that sovereignty has been redefined by the Good Friday Agreement. I disagree. Sovereignty has been redefined by the Labour Government’s handing over power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with or without the Good Friday Agreement. We must open the doors of Northern Ireland and let the moths out. What we are talking about is devolution of power within the United Kingdom, not divorce — dilution to strengthen our hand and the hand of our people. That is the important point.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Would the Member accept that dissolving of power is not the point in question? It is the transferring of powers to a different region that we are talking about. We are not dissolving power, we are transferring that power to be administered by the people of this region.
Mr Paisley agrees with what I said. We are dissolving and diluting the power at Westminster and strengthening the power in Belfast.
Mr P Robinson:
No. The power of Westminster without any doubt is being lessened, and the powers of Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh are being strengthened. Let me move to the point.
I want to respond to certain points that have been made in the Chamber. I apologise for not initially commending the report, the work of the Chairman, Mr McFarland, and the Clerk, Mr Reynolds, and my colleagues on the Committee for contributing constructively to the debate.
Mr McCartney did not want to state that he was working hard, but we had to work hard to respond to many of his contributions. He suggested that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will remain so. However, we must also remember - and this is a point that has been raised before but not by certain other Members - that Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland are parts of the European Union. In talking about the United Kingdom's devolving power, we have to appreciate that not only is power being devolved from Westminster to Belfast, it has already been devolved upwards from Westminster to Brussels. There are three stages of the devolution process.
Mr A Maginness:
Would the Member agree that the concept of sovereignty that has been much bandied about this morning as it was in the Committee, is an outmoded concept? Sovereignty as such, in the latter part of the twentieth century, does not exist. If you are a member of NATO and the European Union, if you are a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights or any other international conventions, you have in effect, pooled sovereignty with other bodies, other countries and other communities. Therefore, the concept of sovereignty is outmoded and old-fashioned and should be jettisoned.
I am grateful to the Member - it might be excessive to jettison the concept of sovereignty, but I totally agree that the idea and the nature of sovereignty is changing as we move forward in a new world where there is new thinking and more democracy.
To jettison it might be to let go too quickly. We need to understand the new forms it will take and the new allegiances, and powers and procedures that will flow therefrom. I am delighted that this debate is actually covering issues that go far beyond the borders of Northern Ireland, setting Northern Ireland in context within these islands, within Europe and within the world. It is valuable that the debate is, rightly, going in that direction.
My last point concerns what I would call the "nearly all-party" agreement in the Committee. I am disappointed that a full consensus was not reached. It was a very valuable working experience for us as Committee members, and while we did not reach a consensus, we all listened to each other and took on board what others were saying. Nobody walked out, and nobody stomped out, and there was no anger. We arrived at a report which will guide us forward in the future.
I underline issues such as European legislation, which the House should examine in the future. Mr Foster made a valuable point about the important role Europe has played. We should look at how we relate to Brussels. This will be very important. Mr McCartney suggested that it was silly to consider this, that we could not go directly to Europe. We have a direct flight to Europe, which 90% of the representatives here used last week. We can go directly to Europe, formally or informally.
I commend the report and the "nearly all-party" agreement, and I thank my colleagues for their work.
I rise at the risk of becoming another political pygmy in the "cycloptic" shadow of Mr McCartney - but then a Cyclops has only one eye.
I pay tribute to Mr McFarland and thank him for the capable way in which he led us through our work. I also thank Joe Reynolds, the Committee Clerk, who was brilliant at getting materials to us in time, in spite of the problems we have in the west with the post. But perhaps that will be dealt with at another time. I also pay tribute to those with expert opinions who attended our deliberations and informed us. I congratulate all members for the way in which they approached the task that was given to us. Our remit was relevant to both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the United Kingdom Parliament.
I will return later to section 9.
With regard to recommendation 17, I hope that Questions on Northern Ireland will continue to be taken every four weeks. The period for Questions has been reduced from 40 to 30 minutes to take account of devolution. This body does not wish to see that period reduced any further, because it remains important that our Members of Parliament at Westminster have adequate time to scrutinise the actions of the Secretary of State, particularly on reserved and excepted matters.
Paragraphs 20 to 24 of the report should be considered in conjunction with paragraphs 37 to 41. Here it is emphasised that there is still work to be done. The report suggests an evolving situation.
On the European issue the report describes how we have an input into the internal workings of Westminster on Europe via the Select Committee on EU legislation and the two European Standing Committees. This was not mentioned in the report, but it has certainly been mentioned in debate. I believe, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, that you have been made aware of this Committee's concern. It would be right for us to retain a high-profile regional influence. I accept that direct input is by way of our sovereign Parliament, but it is certainly vital - I am sure that all who were in Brussels last week would agree - that we must retain a high regional influence. That is something which the Assembly must take on board.
I wish to conclude by referring to section 9. The concept of sovereignty, when taken within a European context, is quite interesting. The French, for example, have their viewpoint on sovereignty, even though the European Union would have certain considerations for the whole of Europe. Perhaps we in the United Kingdom could learn from the French and be prepared to take a stand on behalf of our people.
Sinn Fein's admission that it viewed the addition of the extra sentence as a tightening of the relationship between the Northern Ireland Assembly and Westminster - with the retrenchment of the Union - is quite interesting. The additional sentence is, I am sure, in the opinion of those on this side of the House, and perhaps others, merely a summing-up of the facts which were expressed in the preceding part of section 9.
In Committee I asked if the previous part of section 9 was acceptable to everyone. The reply was that it was acceptable. I would ask Members to read the second last sentence.