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Northern Ireland: Talks Process

Volume 758: debated on Monday 15 December 2014


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat as a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on the cross-party talks which have been taking place in Stormont over the past nine weeks. In September, the Government concluded that the time was right for a fresh round of political discussions to be convened with the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive. The Irish Government reached the same conclusion.

The aim was to address some key issues which are hindering the effectiveness and credibility of devolution and the Stormont Executive. These included: welfare reform and the Executive’s budget; the so-called legacy issues of flags, parading and the past; and reform of the political institutions. The talks began at Stormont House on 16 October.

As a signatory to the Belfast agreement, the Irish Government have been fully involved in all those matters where they too have responsibilities, consistent with the three-stranded approach, which means that the internal arrangements for Northern Ireland are a matter for the UK Government and the parties.

I would like to take this opportunity to put on record my thanks for the positive and constructive role played throughout by the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan TD, and his team of officials. In addition, I am very grateful for the support and wise counsel of my honourable friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office. The US Government have also been supportive and closely engaged with this process, in particular through Secretary of State Kerry’s representative, Senator Gary Hart. So far around 90 hours of formal talks have taken place.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, have been closely following the whole nine-week process, and on Thursday they joined the discussions directly. They conducted an intensive round of talks with the Executive parties and I would like to thank both of them for their support, perseverance and ongoing commitment to the process.

Despite their efforts, by early Friday they made a realistic assessment that there was still insufficient consensus across the parties for a broadly based agreement to be reached. Shortly afterwards, all five Executive parties declared their firm intention to continue to strive for a deal. They asked me and Minister Flanagan to take part in a resumption of discussions on Friday afternoon, which we duly did.

Let me briefly set out to the House the outline of a deal put on the table on Thursday. A draft heads of agreement was tabled including a fresh approach to the past which puts the needs of victims and survivors at its heart, devolved arrangements for adjudicating on parades that would see the Parades Commission replaced by a new authority and reforms to the institutions such as support for those parties that might want to form an opposition within the Assembly.

The draft also sought a commitment from the Executive to press ahead with welfare reform though with a number of flexibilities to reflect Northern Ireland’s circumstances and to implement a serious efficiency programme to make long-term savings in the costs of government. This draft was the result of the work of both the UK and Irish Governments respecting the three-stranded approach and we believe that it represents a balanced package and a sound basis for cross-party agreement.

During the evening, the Prime Minister also set out proposals to provide further financial assistance from the UK Government. This included flexibilities which would have given the Executive nearly £1 billion of extra spending power to help them through their current difficulties and support their most important priorities. It would also allow the devolution of corporation tax to go ahead—a change which just a few years ago seemed inconceivable and undeliverable is now within the grasp of Northern Ireland’s leaders, if they choose to take it.

The talks resume this week and the stakes are high. All parties agree that if there is no agreement before Christmas, we will not get this close again for months or even years. In particular, failure to agree a balanced final budget would leave the Executive increasingly unable to conduct even ordinary day-to-day business effectively, so this week is crucial.

All of us have a responsibility to do whatever we can in the few days left to us. The UK Government have shown that they can compromise, even over hugely sensitive and difficult issues regarding Northern Ireland’s past and even when resources are constrained by the need to deal with the deficit. We will continue to do all that we can to deliver agreement within the financial constraints in which we are operating.

However, the UK and Irish Governments can only do so much. Ultimately, whether an overall agreement is reached is down to Northern Ireland’s political leaders. They have a chance to show that, once again, they can move Northern Ireland forwards towards a better future, where politics works, the economy grows and society is stronger and more united. This is the prize on offer, and I know that all participants in the talks will have the support and good will of the House in our continuing efforts to seize it”.

My Lords, I am grateful—as I am sure the whole House is—to the noble Baroness for repeating this Statement made first in the House of Commons.

There has always been a broad consensus among the parties, although we have expressed in minor and quite mild terms our concerns about the lack of proper engagement by the Government since 2010. Does the Minister understand the disappointment and surprise of the five Executive parties at the swift exit of the Prime Minister from the talks? That compounds what is perceived by the people of Northern Ireland as a lack of total engagement by the current Government on the issue of Northern Ireland. Non-agreement on the difficult issues of flags, parades and the past means that many communities in Northern Ireland remain divided. What progress does the Minister think has been made in helping to build a shared future for Northern Ireland? As we all know, failure to agree on contentious issues such as flags and parading has in the past led to violent protest. Is the Minister, therefore, concerned by the chief constable’s warning that cuts to the service’s budget will mean that it will have fewer resources to allocate to policing public events?

My Lords, I think it is absolutely unacceptable to suggest that the Secretary of State has been anything less than totally dedicated to these talks. The Secretary of State has personally worked on this very strongly every week since October and has made every effort to ensure that the talks are successful. The Prime Minister has remained very closely in touch.

I remind the House that there is a very strong imperative here to reach agreement. The prize, as was pointed out in the Statement, is the devolution of corporation tax. It is a fact of life that this Government are drawing to a close with the coming election. To get legislation through Parliament in time for the end of our business, with the election coming, it is essential that the agreement on corporation tax is made virtually immediately. Therefore, the Prime Minister’s efforts are concentrated in time to enable this agreement to take place in a way that enables devolution of corporation tax to be effective.

The noble Lord is very accurate in his comments on the impact on day-to-day services in Northern Ireland. He mentions the PSNI, but if there is no agreement on the budget it goes across the board. I urge the parties in Northern Ireland to redouble their efforts, because it is essential that they reach agreement so that day-to-day services can continue to be delivered.

I thank my noble friend for repeating the Statement, to which I listened carefully. However, given that the Statement says that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach judged that there was insufficient consensus for a broadly based agreement and that there is only one week in which to find any agreement, one is led to the conclusion that the best to be hoped for is for something to be cobbled together that could take us to the other side of the Westminster election, when the numbers of people elected, the balance of parties and coalitions and so on may be different.

However, I am struck by the fact that the Statement says:

“If there is no agreement before Christmas”—

a week away—

“we will not get this close”,

not for a few weeks but,

“for months or even years”.

One might take from that that there was an expectation on the part of the Government that we might be moving towards direct rule. Can the Minister confirm that before there could be any movement towards direct rule, there would have to be an election for a new Assembly in Northern Ireland, to give newly elected Members the opportunity to get into negotiations and to try to form a Government?

Secondly, can she confirm that if that were not achieved and there was direct rule, that there would be implementation—“press ahead” was the phrase used—of welfare reform, and, in the words of the Statement, the implementation of,

“a serious efficiency programme to make long-term savings”?

Can she confirm, too, that the Irish Government would have to be involved in all the cross-border bodies that are already in existence and—without doubt, given that the security situation would be likely to suffer—cross-border co-operation on security and justice issues as well?

It is important not just to pose these questions but to get an answer, because I have the sense that on both sides in Northern Ireland there is a failure to recognise the process that would ensue from lack of agreement, and the consequences for people from both sides in terms of welfare reform, efficiency savings and cross-border co-operation between the British and Irish Governments.

My noble friend makes some important points about the process to be followed. I start by saying that the agreement needs to be genuine, and not something cobbled together, because that would fall apart. My noble friend is right to point out that the Statement clearly says that the window of opportunity will close in the new year. The realities of the time in the electoral cycle make it difficult. If the Executive were to collapse, the first and immediate result of that would be an election, and only if we were unable to re-establish an Executive would it be possible to think of direct rule. There is no legislation in place for the re-imposition of direct rule. If direct rule were, very regrettably, the eventual outcome, it would have to be in accordance with the terms of the Belfast agreement. My noble friend is right to point out that there is a role for the Irish Government in those terms.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for bringing the Statement to the House. She hit the nail on the head when she talked about returning to the Belfast agreement. That was in 1998, and since then we have had little more than tokenism as far as Westminster is concerned. Let me reiterate what the noble Lord said earlier. We have no hands-on direct involvement between Northern Ireland and the Palace of Westminster despite the fact that we are part of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister arriving without any consultation that I am aware of with anyone who went through the entire talks process from 1994 to 1998—in fact, it was even longer than that—and a Secretary of State who has been negligent in her liaison with those who have experience not only of the political problems but of the terrorist problems that we suffered in Northern Ireland for 28 years, is quite ridiculous. We cannot assume that a 24-hour or 48-hour visit will have the slightest impact on the problems we face or on building confidence between two sections of the community which are still sadly—

The noble Lord refers to a lack of hands-on involvement by the UK Government. I would point out to noble Lords that that is what happens when you abide by the terms of the devolution agreement. If Northern Ireland is to recover from its past, it is essential that the politicians and the structures of Northern Ireland be allowed to bed in, to develop and grow, and to work. It is important to bear in mind that we have now had the longest period of devolution in Northern Ireland since the 1960s, and the success of that period should be acknowledged.