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Northern Ireland

Volume 759: debated on Thursday 29 January 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they have fulfilled their commitment in The Coalition: our programme for government to “work to bring Northern Ireland back into the mainstream of UK politics”.

My Lords, this Government have worked hard to ensure that Northern Ireland is fully involved in United Kingdom affairs and that UK policy fully reflects Northern Ireland interests. Therefore, when it fell to the UK to host the G8 summit, we chose Fermanagh. The economic pact with the Northern Ireland Executive, the Stormont House agreement, the accompanying financial package and the corporation tax legislation all demonstrate our commitment to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and promote peace, stability and prosperity.

I thank my noble friend very much. Can she give an absolute assurance to the House that the Government will continue to stand robustly by their commitment to bring Northern Ireland into the mainstream of UK politics? What are they doing to ensure that their devolution of further powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly does not take the Province away from the mainstream, in breach of their commitment? Finally, has any progress been made on an issue that has been of grave concern to the House—namely, the need for action to ensure that the National Crime Agency can carry out its work more fully in the Province?

I assure noble Lords and my noble friend that the Government stand four-square behind the commitment made in the coalition agreement. Of course, devolution has to work very much within the interests of Northern Ireland—that is the point of it—but it is very possible to see a very close link between our politics and that that is developing within Northern Ireland. On the National Crime Agency, some very promising discussions are under way between the Justice Minister, members of the SDLP and the Home Secretary on these matters, and there is optimism that real progress is being made. I urge all involved to work towards a successful conclusion on this because it is important that NCA services are provided in full throughout Northern Ireland, which is not getting the full benefit of protection.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness explain why the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who claims to be a unionist, has colluded with the Irish Government on strand 1 issues? Is it not illogical that the Prime Minister, who allegedly wants less interference in UK affairs by Brussels, seems happy to concede to Dublin a greater role in the internal affairs of my part of the United Kingdom?

In accordance with the Belfast agreement there is a role for the Dublin Government in strand 2 and strand 3 issues, and that was the way in which the recent Stormont House talks were conducted.

My Lords, coming from Wales, my noble friend will know very well that there is quite a difficult balance between the devolved regions on the one hand having their own say and taking their own responsibility, and on the other having a proper relationship with Westminster and London. However, is she aware that, despite these difficulties, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland has complained that it is easier for them to get a meeting with President Obama than with our Prime Minister? Will she convey to the Prime Minister’s Office that that is not the best way to show a full engagement with the rest of the United Kingdom?

I am sure that the Prime Minister’s Office will take note of my noble friend’s comments. However, it is absolutely clear that the Prime Minister was fully engaged in the Stormont House process and went to Northern Ireland to push the process along; indeed, a successful conclusion was reached very soon after that visit. I therefore reject the idea that the Prime Minister has not been engaged.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the best form of integration is economic and social integration? Child poverty in Northern Ireland is set to rise, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that Northern Ireland’s labour market and poverty rates have deteriorated over the past five years. Inequality and intergenerational deprivation is corrosive in any society, but in Northern Ireland it becomes an environment to exploit people’s fears. The Labour Party has established the Heenan-Anderson Independent Commission, which is a ground-breaking attempt to tackle inequality in Northern Ireland and make recommendations to the next Labour Government. Can the Minister outline what specific economic measures have been brought in by the Government to help conditions in Northern Ireland?

My Lords, Northern Ireland has been subject to the same attempts at economic stimulus that the UK Government have made throughout the land. It is important to bear in mind that in addition to the strenuous efforts that we have made to deal with the particularly strong problems in Northern Ireland, we have, for example, ensured that the G8 summit, the Giro d’Italia and the World Police and Fire Games were held there. There has of course been a very generous financial package of nearly £2 billion as part of the recent Stormont House agreement. That should set Northern Ireland on the step towards recovery, but it remains important that a peaceful society develops there because the Troubles caused so much economic poverty.

My Lords, at the heart of the question of equal citizenship throughout the United Kingdom is the question of freedom of expression. The Minister will be aware that in this Parliament we have passed a reform of our libel law enhancing freedom of expression in the rest of the United Kingdom, but not in Northern Ireland. This is indeed a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly, but will she take this opportunity to remind the House that the Government’s view is that it is desirable to have the maximum possible freedom of expression, as embodied in that recent reform?

My Lords, the Government greatly regret the fact that that law has not been introduced in Northern Ireland, and urge those in the Assembly to work on this so that it can be.

Does my noble friend agree that one disturbing fact about Northern Ireland is that it is the single most heavily subsidised small area in the whole of the European Union, even including some of the new member states from 2004? What do the Government intend to do about this, to redress the balance and make Northern Ireland more competitive?

My Lords, the Government share my noble friend’s concern about the level of subsidy that has been necessary. The public sector, for example, constitutes around 30% of the economy in Northern Ireland, whereas it constitutes around 20% elsewhere. Therefore we have made strenuous efforts to encourage inward investment in Northern Ireland, and we hope that the corporation tax legislation will be a key issue in making Northern Ireland more competitive.