Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take, together with the government of the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland political parties, in reaching and implementing an agreement on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland, building on the draft conclusions of the Haass talks.
My Lords, earlier this week, I attended a plenary of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and we spent last Monday visiting the World War I battlefields in Flanders, especially the graves of so many soldiers who died, including thousands of Irishmen who had volunteered to serve in the British Army. It was a very moving day, especially the ceremony at the Menin Gate at 8 pm that evening.
One of the places that we visited was the Island of Ireland Peace Park and Tower. At that place is a peace pledge from which I wish to quote briefly. It states:
“As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic Soldiers when they served together in these trenches”.
That is just an extract from the pledge.
I welcome this opportunity to draw attention to the Haass proposals, which cover parades, flags and dealing with the past. It is really too wide an area for this short debate, so I thought it better to concentrate on just one of these issues; namely, dealing with the past. I should pay tribute to the Eames-Bradley report and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for the part that they played in preparing the way for the Haass proposals. Indeed, I am sorry that the Eames-Bradley report did not get more attention at the time; it certainly deserved to. It is essential that the people of Northern Ireland should be helped to come to terms with the past, which still weighs heavily on them.
Much progress has of course been made in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements, but the peace is still not solidly based and it is important to make progress on the outstanding issues. Indeed, I go so far as to say that the Good Friday agreement at this time looks vulnerable and fragile. Even at Stormont, the parties could not agree on appointing a new Speaker, having previously said that they would do so. It is a difficult situation and it is against this background that the Belfast talks started last Thursday. Does the Minister have any news about those talks? Will they consider the past and will there be some opportunity to learn more about what is happening there? It is clear that hopes rest heavily on those talks.
As I said, the Good Friday agreement led to the institutions and they have worked pretty well, but I believe that they are now distinctly fragile. Will the Minister confirm what would be the consequence of a collapse in the institutions? Does she feel that there are still people in Northern Ireland, some with considerable influence, who act as if they would not mind if the Executive collapsed? Does she agree that plan B—if one can call it that—would be joint rule by the British and Irish Governments with the strong likelihood of further elections? That would be a dire outcome, so it is even more essential that we do all we can to protect the Good Friday agreement and what it meant for the people of Northern Ireland.
I appreciate that there are other problems in giving effect to the Haass proposals—the Minister will no doubt mention that of the welfare cuts, which I put down as one of the issues that will have to be resolved—yet on the positive side, a few years ago, we had the Saville report on the events on Bloody Sunday. That at the time represented an important step forward—I think that it still is an important step forward— particularly as the Prime Minister endorsed it so warmly. However, that is only one aspect of the past and there are many unresolved issues. Haass represents the chance of moving forward. Have the Government yet endorsed the Haass recommendations? I do not think that they have. I wonder whether the Minister would be prepared to endorse them as a good way forward to encourage the Northern Ireland parties to act on them.
Let us look briefly at some of the proposals. Of course, essential should be support for victims and survivors, and there should be a strengthening of the Victims and Survivors Service that was established in 2012. There has been a suggestion that the commissioner should be encouraged to establish a mental trauma service. So many people in Northern Ireland have been severely damaged as a consequence of the Troubles. Anything that would help them as regards their mental well-being could only be a good thing.
A key proposal in the Haass report is to establish a historical investigations unit, which could on occasion refer cases to Public Prosecution Service. That unit would embrace some of the existing institutions and bring them together. If the Haass report is to be given effect to, it would certainly be a much more powerful weapon than we have at the moment. There should also be an independent commission for information retrieval.
To acknowledge the past must be difficult. It is fairly easy at this distance to say, “Get on with it and do it”, but I fully understand how difficult it must be for everyone involved in Northern Ireland to acknowledge some of the things that happened in the past. It is a very difficult psychological process. So many people experienced pain and loss during the conflict. For many, there has been no closure or comfort to date. Haass states:
“Some deaths can be attributed to state actors; the overwhelming majority, however, were caused by paramilitary organisations … For the vast majority of … people, there has been little in the way of closure or comfort; more than 3,000 conflict-related deaths were never solved”.
I shall not list all those deaths—there were many—but I happened to meet some time ago the families from Ballymurphy, scene of one of the painful episodes of the Troubles. As far as I know, there is no further process at the moment to look into what happened there. When I met the families, I said, “We can’t have another 10-year inquiry. It’s got to be much quicker than that, otherwise nobody will accept it”. I think that they agreed with that. Those families whom I met, and they may not be typical of everyone, said that all they wanted was for the truth to come out—no more or less than that. That seems very simple. It may be that other people want more than that; they may want action against people whom they see as the perpetrators. That becomes a more difficult process, because it undermines the way in which evidence can be collected. I was also assured that a lot of the evidence was in existence. Ballymurphy is only one of many incidents which need to be looked at.
In general, conflict situations are difficult to resolve, as we know. If no progress is made, it almost means that the process starts going backwards. It is clear that leadership is needed from all the parties on the Executive. The British Government together with the Irish Government can nudge the process on. We cannot solve it, because so many of the issues are devolved, although not all of them. For our part, if the House reports come to a positive conclusion, there will have to be some UK legislation as well coming through this House and the Commons. As I understand the position, we would need some legislation to deal with some of the issues raised by Haass. So I hope that that will also be possible.
There also needs to be the most widespread possible consultation in Northern Ireland. Just imposing a solution on them would simply not be acceptable. We have to bring the people of Northern Ireland with us in this process or the Northern Ireland Executive and politicians have to bring their people with them, and give the victims a chance to express their views and to comment specifically on any proposals.
I was in Northern Ireland as a junior Minister for two years, leading up to the Good Friday agreement and beyond. I always said to people, “I haven’t been personally affected by the Troubles. Nobody that I know has been affected by the Troubles so it is easier for me and the other Ministers to say hello to everybody and deal with everybody”. None of the backlog of problems affected us so it was easier. I fully understand, however, that for people in Northern Ireland it is a much more difficult situation. Nevertheless, we want that to be the norm in the peace process so that people can express their views and are able to deal with the people who have transgressed.
I believe that the events in Northern Ireland are at a critical stage—very critical. It is essential that the British and Irish Governments use all their influence to persuade the Northern Ireland political parties to move forward—and, I have to say, to do so quickly.
My Lords, if incremental terrorism was the root of the problems that we now discuss, then only incremental reconciliation will slowly lay them to rest as both past and pain diminish with time. That is not to say that the recommendations by Dr Haass and that distinguished woman Professor O’Sullivan, his colleague, rightly highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, are not worth while in themselves. They make some interesting proposals on commissions for information retrieval and all the rest.
Alas, however, that these proposals could not be generated from within Northern Ireland itself by the Northern Irish. There are only so many steps that our Government can take without them being firmly founded on the engaged consent of the population as a whole rather than the partisan responses to the well meant proposals of fly-by highly talented neutral diplomats, however skilled in peace processes—and however self-effacing—they may be.
Truly it is a sad reflection that there seem to be no home-bred great women or great men in Northern Ireland who can be accepted across the piece to undertake that reconciliation task, gaining that indigenous consent. In that fact is found the real measure of the problem and its likely longevity.
It seems that even the most anodyne suggestions from people without simply act as a lightning conductor to reignite ancient discontents, as we have seen in the reaction to the Haass and O’Sullivan reports—even prompting some again to reach for that pike hidden in the thatch. As with the fiscal, so with the peace process; people in the Province have to get a grip on it themselves and make it work. Just as the resolve will rapidly have to be found within the Province to run itself properly before it runs out of money very shortly by dealing with overspending in Northern Ireland, so reconciliation must come via resolve from within and with time. All that can be done in the mean time is to keep on trying; keep on keeping going until the pace of incremental reconciliation really gathers pace one day, when.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for securing this debate. Given the number of speakers who wish to take the floor, we all have a very short period of time. In a sense that is the important message. All of us in this House who know about Northern Ireland, particularly those of us who live there, wanted to speak tonight because we are worried about the situation. The noble Lord described it as fragile, even perhaps critical. He is absolutely right about that. The situation is deteriorating politically—not so much in security terms at this point, but politically it is extremely serious.
The problem with the Haass process is that people seem to feel that what we needed was a political agreement or a political fix. But that is not the case. It is not a question of bringing forward yet more proposals. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and his colleague Mr Bradley have produced excellent proposals. The problem is not that. It is getting people emotionally as a community to the point where they are prepared to accept them. Although people have signed up for parity of esteem, the truth is that there are many people in the republican and nationalist community who still act as though they were victims rather than as though there were parity of esteem—and there are those in the loyalist and unionist community who act as though they were still dominant, when in fact there is parity of esteem written into the legislation.
The British Government also have a responsibility in this. Devolution did not mean everything and all responsibilities being handed over to people in Northern Ireland. This was a three-stranded process. The British and Irish Governments were the driver for the peace process—making sure that things continued and in the end came to a good conclusion. They retain a responsibility for making sure that it does not all fall to pieces—and, by the way, it is in their interests. If the devolution component of the three strands disappears, we do not end up with direct rule back to Westminster, but with de facto joint authority, with the north-south institutions that are in place remaining in place, but with a responsibility on the part of British Ministers to engage with Irish Ministers. The north-south thing remains with the British-Irish component: so there is a relationship. Indeed, when it comes to security, if those republicans who have engaged in the political process find that it does not work, it will be the most profound encouragement to those republicans who never believed in the political process and will want to return to the pike—perhaps no longer in the thatch, as the noble Lord has referred to.
This is serious. I deeply hope that my noble friend can not just tell me that there is a process under way with the Secretary of State and her opposite number, but show an appreciation of the gravity of the political situation at present. It is serious. If this House does not find a way of encouraging the Government to take it seriously, we will find ourselves back having to deal with some of the really contentious issues that we had desperately hoped were no longer on our plate.
My Lords, we frequently hear the phrase that is the headline for this debate: “dealing with the past”. But less frequently do we consider what those words mean. Thirty years of conflict, 3,500 deaths, family life subjected to unbelievable stress, victimhood inflicted on thousands, and memories of loved ones injured and scarred for life, both in uniform and out of it. I speak after more than 40 years of pastoral work in Northern Ireland, 20 of them as Anglican archbishop. The recollection of numerous funerals and the attempts to support broken families will go with me to my grave.
When people talk about dealing with the past, it is much more than statistics that can be dismissed with the stroke of the political pen. It is about faces, voices, tears and frustration: little children deprived of parents. It is about people. Many of those people today ask for justice for themselves or for a loved one. Three thousand unsolved deaths remain to be addressed. They ask for justice, but justice comes in many forms: someone standing in the dock, someone taking responsibility, someone offering an apology—and some simply want to know what happened. I could quote many examples of each of those categories. Above all, they emphasise that foremost in any solution to the past must be the victims and the survivors.
The Consultative Group on the Past, of which I was privileged to be co-chairman, produced the suggestion of a legacy commission that would combine the elements of reconciliation, investigation and storytelling. It should last for five years and it should bring a form of closure to dealing with the past. We presented that blueprint more than five years ago. Whatever else was rejected in our report, the seeds of a legacy commission remain a talking point today, and indeed have surfaced in one form in the recent Haass proposals.
Northern Ireland is tired of political posturing and endless discredited proposals. Most of its people want to move on and live their lives. Today health, education and jobs are the real issues. However, until and unless there is the political will to deal with the past, our community will lurch from one disclosure, one media speculation and one blame game to another. I beg the Minister to take some of this frustration back to the Government, for I honestly believe that until there is some redress and the political will to address the issues of the tragic past, a lot else will fail.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for introducing this timely debate and for his supportive interest in Northern Ireland affairs.
I want to make three observations and one plea to the Government. First, it is important to remember how far we have come in Northern Ireland over the past few years. Northern Ireland is a transformed society. The Province is almost unrecognisable from what it was like just a quarter of a century ago. Northern Ireland is a place where people now want to come and to invest, where our young people want to stay and make their lives, and where relative peace and stability are now the norm. That progress has been built on the restoration of devolved powers.
Secondly, we should remember just how slow that progress has been. Though it is now 20 years since the announcement of the first IRA ceasefire and the loyalist ceasefires, and 16 years since the Belfast agreement, it is still only seven years since devolution was restored on a stable and lasting basis—it is fair to say that we never rush these things. So while it is easy to become frustrated with the pace of change, we must not become discouraged. Nor should we have unrealistic expectations about quick solutions to the most difficult issues that have so far eluded us. It is hardly surprising that the issues that have yet to be fully and comprehensively addressed are some of the most difficult. The reality is that it has proved to be easier to share power than to agree what happened in the past.
Thirdly, we should be aware that it is not the problems of flags, parading or the past that currently threaten the process, but the issue of the implementation of the UK coalition Government’s welfare reform policy. It is indeed regrettable that the nationalist parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly have refused to support legislation to implement those reforms.
The cost of this failure to reach consensus, in terms of penalties imposed by the Treasury and IT costs, will quickly increase to hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Given the already constrained fiscal position, cuts of this magnitude would simply not be deliverable and would jeopardize the future viability of devolved government. My party, while opposing aspects of welfare reform in this Parliament, accepts that the parity principle that has served us well in Northern Ireland should be adhered to. In addition, we have proposed to fund from our own budget in Northern Ireland measures designed to alleviate the burden of the reductions in welfare payments on those least able to afford them.
I want to see the parties in Northern Ireland agreeing a way forward on welfare reform. However, if they cannot, my plea to the Government is simple: they must act quickly and, if necessary, legislate in order to save the rest of the devolved settlement. If this issue is not addressed quickly, there will not be a functioning Stormont to consider solutions to other problems, such as the issue of the past.
I trust that in the weeks to come the parties will be given the opportunity and encouragement to find local solutions—but, if they do not, the Government must act to preserve and protect the progress that has been made to ensure that Stormont can continue to function.
This is an extraordinarily timely debate, for which we are all most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Following the restoration of devolution in the Province, there is always a danger that the affairs of this part of our country will slip too far down Westminster’s agenda. A debate such as this helps to ensure that that does not happen. With the whole constitutional order in flux after the Scottish referendum, it is especially important that full attention is given to Northern Ireland’s place in the significant changes that are under consideration to recreate constitutional stability throughout our land.
The need for an agreement on dealing with the past, with which this Motion is concerned, will clearly be at the centre of the cross-party talks that my right honourable friend the Secretary State for Northern Ireland initiated last week. As she stressed, continuing disputes over the truth of what happened during the Troubles, and the deep, still raw grief in both communities, about which the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, once again spoke so movingly and eloquently, contribute significantly to the difficulty of sustaining the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, as do disputes over flags and parades. They consume ever-increasing amounts of time and resources, which so badly need to be redirected to securing our fellow countrymen’s and women’s shared future together with the rest of us.
In the last 30 years of the 20th century, all the irreconcilables of Irish history came to dwell in the north. They do not yield readily to the healing processes in which so many fine people, both here and in Northern Ireland, have been engaged and must continue to be engaged until the vital goal of a shared future firmly within the framework of the United Kingdom has been attained.
We are all surely united in wishing the Secretary of State every success in her endeavours. The challenge for her and all the participants in the discussions that are about to take place is to extract from the Haass talks last year the elements that can be incorporated in a firm agreement, along with proposals to settle the increasingly bitter disagreements within the Northern Ireland Assembly over budgetary matters and welfare reform that are tearing it apart. That is a tall order, but the very obduracy of the problems underlines the need to seek every means of reducing them.
As regards the past, we surely need irrefutable concrete evidence on which to base action, and that cannot come solely from official records. There can be no special treatment for one side of the conflict. Everything must be open and nothing concealed. There must be no repetition of the appalling secret scheme that benefited some 200 terrorist suspects under the previous Government and this one. Dealing with the past must not be at the expense of handling current issues, as the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland has rightly warned.
These are some of the principles that might usefully help to guide the discussions that are to unfold. As the draft prepared at the end of the Haass talks states:
“It is clear that the vast majority of citizens and communities wish to live free of the division and enmity that has too often defined this society”.
They are our fellow citizens, our fellow communities. As someone once said: “We are all in this together”.
My Lords, as other Members have stated, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, whom we all regard as a good friend of Northern Ireland, both as a Minister and as a Member of your Lordships’ House.
Mention has been made of the budget. Never before, despite all the difficulties, have the Northern Ireland Executive failed to balance their books. While welfare reform is a significant part of the difficulty, it is much less than half the financial shortfall that the Executive are facing, so even if welfare reform were resolved, that would not be the solution in itself. Let us not get into the mindset that if this welfare reform issue had not arisen, we would be fine—we would not.
This is the first time ever that we have been in a position to have to come running in the way that the Executive did a few weeks ago. Ironically, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury are now in the financial driving seat and conditions have been laid down. A budget for next year is to be agreed by the end of this month, and conditions apply. We describe it as a Wonga result for the Executive, so this is a very sad day.
With regard to the Haass talks, the noble Lord, Lord Patten, is not quite correct to say that a lot of these proposals came from Haass. Haass brought a lot of them together but a lot of them were indigenous proposals from different parties at the talks. I can tell him and the House that, had there been an agreement on the past at the Haass talks in January, a few weeks subsequent to that agreement we would have been left in the ludicrous position of learning about the on-the-runs issue and our credibility with the community would have been reduced to zero. So there is an absence of belief in frankness. There is an absence of belief that we know all that has been and is going on, which is a major consideration.
Of course, if we do not solve the financial problems it is rather irrelevant because devolution will not survive the absence of a financial resolve. That is common sense. Haass, however, in the proposals for a historic inquiries unit meant the establishment of a parallel police force outwith the control of the chief constable. This also meant a hugely costly, open-ended process whereby the state would always be at a disadvantage because it has the records and the paramilitary organisations do not. That imbalance is always there and has to be resolved before there will be any agreement. In the expectation that the Secretary of State’s process were to produce a result, or even not, can the Minister tell the House whether the Secretary of State is prepared to put her proposals to a referendum or to recommend another Assembly election to ratify anything that might emerge from the process?
My Lords, we all know that Northern Ireland is still deeply divided. One has only to look at segregated education and housing, walls separating communities, flags, parades, emblems, unsolved historic crimes and mixed marriages. Tonight’s debate refers to the conclusions of the Haass talks. These seem to be the recommendations of mediators trying to propose rational compromises. The parties may well not accept them because they do not feel they own them. There is a further flaw. The parties get many votes at elections but that does not always mean that the votes reflect the views of most peace-loving citizens. Such people want to get on with their lives. Therefore, they will usually back the least bad candidates. This means that the opinions of civil society, trade unions, business groups and voluntary organisations, including churches, should be taken into account when trying to deal with the most divisive issues. Will the Government do so and, if so, how?
My experience of visiting prisoners, some politically motivated and some not, together with my association with NIACRO and other voluntary groups, makes me think that a method, so far untried, may prove helpful. This is professionally assisted conflict analysis. This can be provided by networks of disinterested individuals, some of whom have built up their expertise in other conflicts. Facilitated analysis looks at the causes, rather than the symptoms, of conflict. It helps participants to focus on win-win solutions, which satisfy real felt needs, especially identity needs. The difficulty is to find the right participants, available for long enough—people who represent significant groups or who can form public opinion.
I have outlined the method of conflict analysis to the Secretary of State and the First and Deputy First Ministers. Some 20 years after the main ceasefires and 16 years after the Belfast agreement, we still face deep divisions. Perhaps it is time to try a new method. I have given notice, and look forward to the Government’s response.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for securing this important debate. He has always been a great friend to Northern Ireland. I regret that what I have to say will be relatively cautious in the context of so many earlier eloquent speeches. I hope it will not appear negative but I think it is important to register certain points.
One concern is the cost of the Haass proposals. I fully support the Treasury’s decision to make the loan of £110 million and to ease the immediate crisis in the Executive. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has said, in the context of strict repayment conditions it is very difficult for Northern Ireland to take on board new commitment to public expenditure. If it is true that the Haass proposals amounted to hundreds of millions, that has to be something that we consider carefully. I ask the Minister to give us some help on exactly how costly they might have been. Also, Dr Haass’s proposal outwith the talks when he accepted the Tipperary peace prize for making the Irish language a second official language cannot be, whatever its other merits or demerits, a cost-free proposal.
The other crucial point I want to make is that I have come—I regret to say this because I feel the needs of the victims so strongly and it is such a disappointing thing to say, particularly for those young scholars who want to participate in this process—increasingly to the view that the idea of a shared process of recovery from the past is not a very likely project. It was one I used to strongly and until recently believe in. I have not given up on it completely but I am increasingly sceptical. The unionist community basically believes that the state is responsible for only 10% of deaths, loyalist paramilitaries for 30% and republicans for 60%. They therefore believe that any narrative must reflect the fact that the lion’s share of the killing was carried out by republicans. It is quite straightforward: that is their view of the matter and that is what they want to hear. The republican community, on the other hand, with the support of a large cast of journalists, clerics and NGOs, focuses on broader explanatory factors which emphasise long-term structural factors, discrimination, sectarianism, institutional culpability and collusion. This can sometimes be linked to a broader discourse of human rights, transitional justice and reconciliation. These are two world views you can accept or quote. They are fundamentally opposed. It is hard to see how you can have a shared process when you acknowledge this fact.
Finally, there is the question raised very sharply—it has already been alluded to—by Mr Adams at the weekend when, under pressure, he made an important comment about the Maria Cahill case, which has attracted a lot of attention. It was an alleged rape by a suspected IRA member in 1997. Mr Adams has been under a great degree of media pressure in both the north and the south about this. He said:
“The IRA has long since left the scene so there is no corporate way of verifying”,
what happened in this case. What does this mean for any wider shared process of recovery from the past? The state definitely has a corporate memory but he is now saying the IRA has no corporate memory. It has disappeared. What can this possibly mean for a shared process? These are the reasons for my scepticism. I regret to say these things. I think there are things that the state can do unilaterally and a great deal of consideration should be given to those things, but the shared process seems at this moment, I deeply regret to say, very elusive.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for securing this debate. All these issues around flags, parades and the past are interrelated and it is very important that they are not considered in isolation from each other. Many of the social problems facing communities in Northern Ireland are either a product of, or are compounded by, sectarian divisions. It is deeply depressing that the divisions that run deep in Northern Ireland’s society have been left alone in the “too difficult to handle” box. Effective and sustainable solutions can come only as part of a shared approach, which acknowledges that disengagement, disaffection and disadvantage affect both communities—loyalists and nationalists.
Building a shared future is the single biggest challenge facing Northern Ireland, and it will not achieve what it should for its citizens, either economically or socially, if this critical issue is not addressed. However, it will not be addressed by tinkering at the edges, by trying to manage the symptoms of the problem or by looking at issues in a piecemeal fashion. Although a critical part of finding a means of dealing with the past, it is only one part of the equation. There is a moral duty to provide justice or some other form of truth and reconciliation to those who were the victims of years of terror, especially those who have been bereaved.
The work done by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and Denis Bradley needs to be taken from the shelf, dusted down and much of it implemented, as it gave a road map for this particularly difficult area. It is crucial that victims are at the centre of any process dealing with the past, because without resolving their issues with openness and integrity, society in Northern Ireland cannot hope to make progress on other issues such as the economy and education. The proposals of Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan went a long way to finding justice and truth for all victims in Northern Ireland, and have provided an opportunity that Northern Ireland cannot afford to miss.
However, underpinning all this must be the matter of security. I have talked many times of the difficulties being placed on the PSNI and make no apology for doing so again. The PSNI has £100 million less for policing this year than last. Patten envisaged an establishment figure of 7,500 police officers in a peacetime scenario. We are still far from that and the PSNI now has only 6,600 officers to deal with the continuing unrest. By the close of 2013, Northern Ireland had witnessed 41 gun and 85 bomb attacks, many of which were targeted at police officers, both on and off duty. Imagine that happening on the mainland. Mainly as a result of public disorder, 820 officers have been injured while policing the flag protests and contentious parades. The ACC stated last week that some of the 84 neighbourhood policing teams across Northern Ireland would have to be closed because of the lack of funds.
Other serious consequential problems arise because of not finding a solution to the budget shortfall. This simply cannot continue. The people of Northern Ireland need a real solution to these issues and to the current impasse on the budget. There is now a fresh opportunity, with the current talks, for politicians there to show real leadership and to work together to deliver shared solutions to shared problems.
My Lords, the Belfast agreement provided for a shared Administration of Stormont but, unfortunately, it is now possible for an individual political party to exercise a veto over that shared Administration. It has happened, for example, in welfare reform. We now have a budgetary crisis in Northern Ireland.
The credibility of the Stormont Administration is at a very low level. They have lost respect across the Province. There has been little legislation in that Assembly for the past few years. We have lost Ryanair and John Lewis’s store through a lack of decision. The Belfast agreement itself has not been fully honoured. Even from the outset, the IRA could not call the country “Northern Ireland”. That was the way in which we implemented the Belfast agreement.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is a great supporter of integrated education. We who negotiated the Belfast agreement, and paragraph 13 on rights and equalities, asked the Stormont Administration to promote integrated education. Perhaps the noble Lord does not realise that yesterday the Roman Catholic Church demanded that the Stormont Assembly drop the promotion of integrated education in Northern Ireland. That is a reality.
The Haass recommendations were not popular across Northern Ireland; let us not pretend otherwise. They did not even mention the IRA. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, mentions, quite properly, the cost of the six quangos that were recommended. They were not costed; we do not know what they were going to be. All we know is that the Secretary of State confirmed that they would have to come out of the devolved budget, and not from Westminster.
You could see the hand of the Irish-American lady deputy throughout the entire Haass report. This was a diplomat who spent four years in Iraq abolishing the Iraqi army, sacking all 80,000 civil servants and creating a sectarian constitution in Iraq which has brought us to the chaos we have there.
I am glad that the Secretary of State has confirmed that the Republic of Ireland will not be involved in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. I say to the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Alderdice, that it is dangerous to tell the majority community in Northern Ireland that, if devolution ceases, the Republic of Ireland will be involved in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. That would set off a fire across Northern Ireland, let us not pretend otherwise.
On participation, all parties must be involved in the talks. The political landscape in Northern Ireland has changed in the past four years and 100,000 unionists from the previous election are excluded from these talks while 210,000 are included. If you exclude such a large proportion of unionists from the talks, you are already writing a formula for the talks’ collapse. The way forward must be to address the flags issues immediately. It can be done, it is not impossible; the Flag Institute has confirmed that there is no flag for Northern Ireland. Above all, we must restructure the Stormont Assembly, retaining a cross-community future and providing an Official Opposition, to be fairly funded.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, not only for securing this debate tonight but for his long, positive involvement in Northern Ireland, to which many colleagues have referred. He has a reputation and is extremely well thought of.
Northern Ireland has in recent years made great progress. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness must be complimented on attracting compelling inward and foreign direct investment. However, Stormont’s five main parties have failed to make concrete political progress on issues such as flags, parades and the legacy of the Troubles.
I think that this House’s message to all of Northern Ireland is clear. Individuals, politicians and executive leaders have done so much to steer Northern Ireland in the right direction that it would be a calamity if successive years of co-operation led to gridlock. It is essential that the Belfast agreement is fully implemented. Sinn Fein must be encouraged to engage itself in welfare reform, which is obviously going to affect Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the Democratic Unionist Party and other unionist parties must support other cross-party agreements, such as those in relation to the appointment of a Speaker. If we get into a tit-for-tat situation, we really are in trouble.
In preparing for tonight, I had assistance from a young man called Duncan McEwen. It hit home once again how long the Troubles have been with us when he was able to say that such-and-such an event happened on a day 30 years before he was born. That is another lesson to us: we must do something positive.
In situations such as these, standing still is surely equivalent to moving backwards, antagonism is equivalent to failure and intolerance is equal to that of the past. Working together may not require friendship or even forgiveness, but surely requires mutual respect and a recognition of unavoidable compromise. The construction of the road to peace has not yet been completed. Engineers from all parties must show leadership, tolerance and an ability to accept compromise to oversee its finalisation.
The sombre statement of fact from the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, about the constitutional position of Northern Ireland if the Assembly were to collapse is absolutely correct. While I might not totally endorse the language of the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, such a situation would inevitably be extremely difficult. Such problems have arisen because there is a feeling that the current Government have distanced themselves from Northern Ireland. I call upon the Government to work exhaustively to end the current stalemate and, if appropriate and necessary, to work with the Irish Government to provide a framework for talks, nominating a chair accepted by all parties. I once again thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and ask the Minister to state the Government’s response to this situation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for his thoughtful speech and for the opportunity he has given us for what has been a high-quality debate on this issue. I thank noble Lords for their participation.
In any debate on Northern Ireland’s troubled past, we must acknowledge the pain and suffering inflicted on so many people. As a Government, we are acutely aware of the many victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, many of whom still bear the physical and emotional scars. We must never forget the many thousands who lost their lives, as several noble Lords have mentioned this evening.
This Government believe that it is essential that the Northern Ireland parties find an agreed way forward on how to deal with the past in Northern Ireland. However, we recognise, as have many noble Lords this evening, the challenge that this presents. There have been several attempts to reach agreement and many suggestions put forward. The Eames-Bradley report, in 2009, made a number of recommendations, but it also demonstrated the strength of feeling around this issue. I greatly appreciate the participation of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, this evening. More than one noble Lord this evening has referred to the fact that there are issues of great relevance in that report, and things that deserve to be looked at again.
There were also, as many noble Lords have said, the talks led by Dr Richard Haass late last year. Many commentators have remarked that of flags, parades and the past, the past could well be the most difficult issue to resolve. Yet, remarkably, the past was arguably the issue on which the greatest amount of progress was made in those talks. Although an overall agreement proved elusive, much progress was made between the parties. Following those talks, the Government continued to press the Northern Ireland parties to resume their negotiations and find a way forward.
As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has set out clearly, it is our best assessment that the time is now right for a new set of talks on the range of challenges faced in Northern Ireland. Those talks started in Belfast last week, and we have on balance taken encouragement from the approach adopted by the parties thus far. The discussions were serious and businesslike and we hope that all the parties will continue to engage positively in the process.
However, these talks are not and cannot be about the Government intervening to impose solutions on the Northern Ireland parties; they are about helping, supporting and facilitating in order to reach agreement on the issues for which the Northern Ireland parties have primary responsibility. The system of government established under the various agreements enables Northern Ireland’s political leaders to make decisions on local issues.
We are, however, willing to help and support them where we can. The Secretary of State chaired an initial meeting of the parties last week, as well as a number of bilateral meetings. Over the next few weeks the talks will look at a number of issues, including: finance and budgets—including welfare reform, to which noble Lords referred this evening; the working of the Assembly and the Executive; and outstanding commitments of the agreements.
There are many challenges ahead, and the parties are of the view that they cannot resolve these alone, so we will support, guide and facilitate, providing advice where we can. The Secretary of State is leading those discussions and the Irish Government are likewise involved. Consistent with previous talks processes, they are structured according to the three-stranded approach referred to by my noble friend Lord Alderdice.
The talks will also look at another set of issues. The Government have long pressed the parties to reach agreement on the legacy issues of flags, parades and the past. Tomorrow the focus of the talks will be on those issues. The Secretary of State will again emphasise the need for a way forward, because the prize for doing so is immense.
As the noble Lords, Lord Browne and Lord McAvoy, said, Northern Ireland is a society much changed since the dark days of the Troubles. It is a modern, vibrant society with real potential, which has demonstrated its ability to play a major role on the world stage; for example, with the G8 summit. However, the legacy of division looms large in political life, often at the expense of developing the economy and building a shared future. That needs to change.
I will respond to points and questions asked by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about the consequences of the collapse of the institutions. He is right to suggest that the default position will be that there will be an election. There were resignations so that the institutions could not operate; there must be fresh elections. There are no longer any statutory powers to impose direct rule. It is important that anyone who thinks that the resolution of the current problems faced by the Executive would lie in a short period of direct rule should understand that that is no longer the case. It would prove very difficult indeed to re-establish the institutions if it were necessary eventually to resort to something like that.
In response to the noble Lord’s question on the Haass recommendations, as he knows, some of the parties in the negotiations chaired by Dr Haass endorsed his final proposals. Others did not. The Secretary of State has made it clear that if the parties endorsed recommendations of that sort, we should be prepared to operate them. She has made it clear that a structured approach to the past may be a great advance.
My noble friend Lord Alderdice asked about the situation and emphasised that it is very serious. I say to him that we do not for a moment underestimate the high stakes in the present talks. It is essential that we find a way to ensure that power-sharing in the institutions carries on.
The noble Lords, Lord Browne and Lord Empey, referred to the need for agreement on welfare and the fact that the financial problems facing the Executive are not by any means entirely down to the lack of agreement on welfare. We regard it as essential that the Executive re-establish orderly finances. It is simply not possible for the current situation to continue—it must be addressed.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked whether the Government would take account of the views of civil society as well as those of the political parties. I am very pleased indeed that the noble Lord raised that issue. We welcome the activity by members of civil society, and by church leaders, in providing leadership at this difficult time. For example, we welcome the work of the Make It Work campaign, which provides a point of focus other than the political parties, which is to be welcomed across society in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord also asked about professionally facilitated conflict analysis. That is certainly an interesting idea, but of course it is something that we would consult the parties on. I emphasise again that this process is led by the political parties and no longer by the British and Irish Governments. We have facilitated, brought them together and are urging them on, but the process has to be undertaken and agreed to by the political parties.
If the process is being led by the political parties, why have the Government therefore excluded the unionist representatives of one-third of the unionist vote in Northern Ireland? Some 100,000 unionist voters are not represented at these talks; 200,000 unionist voters are. That is no formula for success.
The parties represented at the talks are those represented within the Executive, and it is important to bear in mind that the talks are going ahead with the agreement of the parties concerned.
I must complete my remarks now. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to the need for an election or a referendum on the outcome of the talks. I will ensure that his point is conveyed to the Secretary of State, but I would point out that there is an election coming up in the near future in any event.
In that case I misunderstood the noble Lord. I apologise for that. I will of course review the record of the debate, and if there are any outstanding questions that I have failed to answer, I shall ensure that I write to noble Lords on those issues. I thank them for raising such important points this evening.