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Northern Ireland: Political Situation

Volume 764: debated on Tuesday 8 September 2015


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place.

“Over recent days I have been involved in a series of discussions with the Prime Minister, the five largest Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government. On Thursday, we announced a fresh round of intensive cross-party talks. Those talks will begin at Stormont this evening and will be conducted in accordance with the established three-stranded approach.

The Government’s objectives are clear. We are committed to working with Northern Ireland’s political leaders to ensure that we have a fully functioning Assembly able to deliver for the whole community, a Northern Ireland where a stronger economy brings greater prosperity for all and a Northern Ireland that is no longer defined by its divided past but by its shared future. But to achieve this, we need urgently to tackle the two main sources of current political instability. These are, first, the issues arising from continued paramilitary activity and, secondly, the implementation of the Stormont House agreement.

Turning to the first of these, on 12 August, a prominent republican, Kevin McGuigan, was brutally murdered in the Short Strand area of East Belfast. This followed the gunning down of another senior republican, Gerard Davison, in the Markets area of Belfast in May.

Although it is not yet possible to know with certainty who was responsible for these murders, on 22 August the chief constable set out the PSNI’s assessment of the McGuigan case. This was the chief constable’s estimate at that date, but we should recognise that we do not yet know where the investigation will ultimately lead.

The chief constable confirmed that the police were following a line of inquiry that indicated that members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the crime. He said that the PSNI did not at that stage have information to indicate that this involvement was sanctioned or directed at a senior or organisational level in the Provisional IRA.

On the status of the Provisional IRA, the chief constable’s assessment was that some PIRA organisational structures still exist, but for a radically different purpose than before. His view was that the organisation was committed to a political path and was no longer engaged in terrorism although some current and former PIRA members continued to engage in criminal activities for personal gain and for personal agendas.

I do not intend to comment further on what is a live police investigation. The PSNI must be allowed to pursue its lines of inquiry wherever the evidence leads. The police assessment that I have outlined may change over time, but I do want to make this clear: there was never a justification for politically motivated violence in Northern Ireland, from whichever side of the community it came. During the Troubles, paramilitary organisations inflicted huge suffering on thousands of ordinary people. These organisations should never have existed in the first place; they should not exist today; and they should disband.

For our part, the Government believe fundamentally in the rule of law. We will not compromise it. We stand fully behind the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence. Only parties committed to exclusively democratic and peaceful means can or should be eligible to participate in Northern Ireland’s political institutions.

I believe that all the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive are committed to these principles, but I am fully aware that the fallout from the murder of Kevin McGuigan and the continued existence of PIRA structures is a cause of grave concern, as is the continued existence of other paramilitary groups, so we have moved swiftly to convene talks to address these matters and to consider how best we can make progress towards the day when paramilitary groupings are consigned to Northern Ireland’s history.

The second matter for the talks is the implementation of the Stormont House agreement. The Government believe that the agreement is the best hope of building a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland, but for that to happen it is essential that the agreement is implemented in full by all those who participated in the negotiations last autumn.

We are delivering on our side of the deal. In March, we passed legislation to open the way for the devolution of corporation tax powers. In line with the Queen’s Speech, we are on course to introduce a Bill in October to set up important new institutions to help deal with the painful legacy of the past. We are now releasing funding to enable the planned voluntary exit scheme to proceed in order to take forward much-needed public sector reform.

The manifesto on which we were elected commits us to working with each of the other participants to ensure that all aspects of the agreement are implemented. That has to include the financial provisions of the agreement, including welfare reform. Without welfare reform and measures to deal with in-year pressures, the Budget passed by the Executive in June simply does not add up. That raises the real prospect that the Executive will start running out of money, with resulting damage to front-line public services such as hospitals, schools and policing.

In those circumstances, the Government cannot stand by and let the situation drag on indefinitely, with Stormont less able to deliver key public services. As a last resort, we would be prepared to legislate here at Westminster for welfare reform in Northern Ireland, but I must emphasise that we would do so reluctantly and only after we had exhausted all the other realistic alternatives. By far the better outcome would be for the Northern Ireland parties to reach agreement to resolve this blockage themselves without the need for Westminster intervention. I still believe that is possible, and that is why we will press ahead with talks this evening, determined to see the implementation of all aspects of the agreement.

We are a one-nation Government, and we want to build a Northern Ireland where politics works, the economy grows, and society is stronger and more united. We strongly support the power-sharing devolved institutions established under the Belfast agreement. The future of those institutions is in jeopardy if the two very serious matters I have outlined today are not resolved. I do not underestimate the challenges that we face, but I believe that a way through can be found, and that is what we will be striving to achieve as we embark on this new talks process with urgency, focus and determination.

Northern Ireland’s political leaders have shown remarkable courage over the past 20 years and have achieved great things working together. We need to show the same spirit over the next few short weeks. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, first, I thank the Government for giving us advance sight of the Secretary of State’s Statement. We in the Labour Opposition strongly support the UK and Irish Governments’ decision to convene all-party talks this week in an attempt to secure a positive way forward on the challenging issues raised by the murder of Kevin McGuigan Sr and its aftermath, together with the implementation of the Stormont House agreement.

There is no doubt that the combination of real concerns following the assessment of the chief constable of the PSNI of the status of the Provisional IRA and the failure to agree a sustainable budget poses the biggest threat to stability in Northern Ireland for many years. We must not lose sight of what has been achieved by all parties talking to each other and, like the Government, we urge all parties to seek the necessary compromises and confidence-building measures, which can avert the collapse of the institutions. The people of Northern Ireland and all sections of the community have had their faith in politicians and political institutions badly damaged by the perpetual crises of the past few years. There should be no doubt that the vast majority want to see progress and a return to a focus on issues such as jobs, education, health and opportunities for young people. It is also the case that business confidence, and therefore investment, is being put at risk by political uncertainty. Many people feel—I understand the feeling—that there is a sense of drift which needs to be tackled head-on by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, all parties in Northern Ireland as well must take responsibility for stepping back from the brink and finding a way forward.

I should like to put some questions to the Minister. In the aftermath of Mr McGuigan’s murder, the Secretary of State said that the Government had always been aware of the continued existence of the Provisional IRA. Can the Minister clear up exactly what was meant by that statement? Is there any evidence of activity by the Provisional IRA, or indeed any so-called loyalist paramilitary groups?

There have been suggestions to reintroduce the Independent Monitoring Commission, although I know that doubts about that have been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. Has an assessment been made of the feasibility and desirability of such a measure?

Precisely at what stage in this financial year will the Northern Ireland budget cease to be sustainable? In the event of this round of talks failing, are the Government actively considering emergency legislation through the House to suspend political institutions and return to direct rule?

Can the Minister provide any detail on the yesterday’s statement that the Government will now consider legislating for welfare reform and releasing funding for the Civil Service voluntary redundancy scheme, and what will be the timeline on that?

I finish by urging, along with the Government, a return to the discipline shown by all parties in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years, which has been considerable and very worth while. May we all plead for that?

My Lords, for a number of years when I was on the IMC I focused a great deal on the monitoring of paramilitary organisations. Is the Minister aware that the balance and order of things in this Statement could potentially be misleading? It focuses heavily on the question of whether there has been IRA activity, as though that was the real primary cause of the current crisis, when in truth this crisis has been developing for months and months over the failure of the political parties—particularly the two leading political parties—to work together in a proper governmental way. This recent event is important, but it should not be allowed to distract us from the fact that if it were magicked away tomorrow morning, the problems would remain.

Secondly, is the Minister aware that even if welfare reform were taken back to Westminster—and if it has to be so, I certainly would not oppose it—that would still leave a complete breakdown in the relationship between the Democratic Unionist Party leadership and the Sinn Fein leadership? Without a working relationship together, the devolved structures will not be able to continue, whether or not they have a problem of welfare and whether or not there is any indication of IRA activity. One must say that Sinn Fein has said the kind of things that many people wanted it to say for years on the IRA: that this was criminal activity; that people should go to the police with information; and that there was absolutely no justification. The Statement refers to “politically motivated violence”, but I have the sense that everything we know about this incident means that it was personally motivated violence rather than for the purpose of destabilising Northern Ireland.

Therefore, will the Minister take back to his colleagues who are engaged in this process that we do not need another monitoring commission or another short-term political fix but a change in the kind of relationships there are between the senior leaderships of the DUP and Sinn Fein? If not, we will be faced, as the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has suggested, with legislation in this place to take back powers, which would be a disaster.

First, I thank the noble Lords, Lord McAvoy and Lord Alderdice, for their remarks and support. I do not think that anybody can doubt the seriousness of the situation or the Government’s commitment to help resolve the current challenges. I am sure that noble Lords in all parts of this House want to see devolved institutions in Northern Ireland that work and deliver for people in Northern Ireland. We all want to see, as the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, said, a Northern Ireland that attracts jobs and investment and where people can be optimistic about their family’s future. There can be no doubt at all that the best route to achieving this is to see the full implementation of the Stormont House agreement. That is why my right honourable friend the Northern Ireland Secretary is convening urgent and intensive talks to find solutions to the critical issues that threaten the effectiveness and credibility of Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions.

I turn to some of the specific points that have been raised. First, on the Provisional IRA, the chief constable of Northern Ireland has set out his view that the Provisional IRA continues to exist organisationally but its purpose has radically changed. Individuals are engaged in criminality for personal gain, but the Provisional IRA as an organisation is no longer engaged in terrorism. We share that assessment, which is why some of the key issues that these intensive talks has to address are the implications of that situation.

Secondly, a question was asked about the IMC. Certainly, that is one option for consideration. However, the current situation—as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, will know all too well, given his previous involvement in the IMC as a commissioner—is clearly very different. Were we to ask a similar body this time, the questions that we would have to ask would be very different.

Suspension would be a very big step. The Government’s view is that that is not right in the current circumstances but, clearly, should the circumstances change, we would need to look at the full range of options that are open to us.

In terms of the budget and its sustainability, in some respects it is already unsustainable, and departments are struggling to deal with the consequences of that. We have made it clear that the voluntary exit scheme should go ahead as planned, because it is only through that route that we will start to get the public sector reform that is such an important part of putting Northern Ireland’s finances on a sustainable footing.

Welfare reform is part of the package of the Stormont House agreement. The Government are delivering their side of the bargain and we would like to see the other parties deliver theirs. In our view, it is primarily for the parties to resolve this issue and to come together and find a way through. Clearly, were there to be a failure to agree then, as my right honourable friend the Northern Ireland Secretary has made clear, the Government would, reluctantly and as a last resort, be prepared to step in if all other options had been exhausted.

My Lords, the hazards are made clear in the Minister’s Statement and the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. No one among those who care about Northern Ireland would underestimate the gravity of the Statement that the Minister has had to make and the vital importance of finding an improved relationship going forward. Is not the reality of the current situation that the challenges and pressures of austerity, which are inevitable for all of us in this country, have brought to a head the tensions between the two major parties in the power-sharing agreement? If there is one statement that gives any encouragement, it is the Secretary of State’s comment that she believes it is still possible to maintain the agreement. I hope the message will go out from this House that, in the interests of everybody in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, it is vital that the discussions at Stormont come to a successful conclusion.

I thank my noble friend for those comments. I entirely agree that the whole purpose of these talks is to get all the parties round the table and to find a way through this very difficult situation. My noble friend mentioned austerity. I think it is worth putting all this into context. The Northern Ireland block grant is still higher in cash terms than it was in 2010 and is only 1% lower in real terms. I repeat that we need to put that into context. It does not diminish the responsibility of, and importance for, the Northern Ireland Executive and all the parties involved in it to undertake the measures to put Northern Ireland’s finances on to a sustainable footing for the long term.

My Lords, I also thank the Minister for making this Statement. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice—unfortunately, I thought—moved the probable link between elected Members and paramilitary groups into second place. No democracy can function if such a link exists. The chief constable of the PSNI stated that the military wing of Sinn Fein still exists. Elected Sinn Fein Members of the Assembly have constantly denied the existence of the Army Council, but the fact remains that 17 years after the signing of the Belfast agreement, the IRA still exists. It retains a command structure and its members continue to murder people on the streets of Northern Ireland.

I ask a simple question: do Her Majesty’s Government believe the chief constable or Adams and Gerry Kelly? If the Government believe their security forces, what purpose do they think the IRA Army Council serves? What is its current status?

As I said in my earlier remarks, the Government share the assessment of the chief constable of the PSNI, and that is why one of the two key focuses of this intensive talks process is to consider the implications of the existence of paramilitary structures —on both sides of the community—as part of this talks process.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Of course we all agree that the way forward for Northern Ireland is a strong economy and an assured future. I should like to ask two questions that are bewildering ordinary people in Northern Ireland. We will hear today from some political people who will be able to describe that better, but I want to speak about ordinary people.

The first thing that confuses people in the community is: why did it take the Secretary of State so long to respond to the breakdown of the Stormont House agreement, which happened last March? Someone once said that in politics a week is a long time; well, I think six months sounds extraordinary, and yet Northern Ireland has been through the whole summer with this hanging over the people’s heads, and there has been no movement. All of a sudden, the Secretary of State has come to life. I just wonder: does it take a crisis on Northern Ireland to have some movement, or is there just a lack of leadership? I have to tell the noble Lord that people on the ground are, first, really worried—naturally. Secondly, they are really amused that people can make all this talk but nothing come out of it at the end of several months. Why did it take the Secretary of State six months before this breakthrough in the talks? I wish them well.

As to my second question, I know that the Minister will tell me that the PSNI is still investigating this matter, and I agree. However, I should like to know what makes this man’s murder so important. In the past 20 years, countless people have been murdered in Northern Ireland. I think back to young Paul Quinn a couple of years ago, who everyone knew that the IRA had murdered. Yet there was nothing. What makes this man’s murder more important than anyone else’s? As I say, I know that the PSNI is investigating, and that is right and true. Even the chief constable came out and said that while there was Provisional IRA involvement, he stated categorically that there was no hierarchy as we know it. What makes this different? People on the ground do not understand how this brought on the crisis.

I have to say that if anyone in this House, in this country or in Ireland believes that the paramilitaries on both sides have gone away, they must have been asleep for the past 20 years.

I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. First, this Government are very committed to devolution, which has widespread support in Northern Ireland. The crux of devolution is local elected representatives being responsible for local issues. As I have said, the Stormont House agreement is a package of measures and the UK Government are delivering their responsibilities under that agreement. We have already legislated on corporation tax and are bringing forward next month legislation to implement aspects of setting up institutions under the Stormont House agreement. However, we feel that it is important that the parties in Northern Ireland have responsibility for taking forward those aspects of the agreement for which they are responsible. The Secretary of State has now stepped in to facilitate these talks, and she will progress them with urgency over the next three to four weeks.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right with regard to the police investigation. We support it, and it is important that the lines of that investigation are pursued without fear or favour and that the perpetrators are brought to justice. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further.

My Lords, already in this discussion there has been mention of the IMC, and we all listen with enormous respect to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, on this subject. He is quite right: the return of the IMC is not a silver bullet—there are wider issues at stake here. However, does the Minister agree with the Irish Foreign Minister that it is something worth discussing, for two particular reasons?

One reason is that, since the Good Friday agreement in 1998, which had only a slender majority within the unionist community, there is now much wider acceptance within that community of the institutions of power-sharing devolution across a very broad spectrum. That underlying stability is helpful at this moment. However, there is also a need to send a signal of clarity about criminal activities. There are not just two choices; there are three. Is there a terrorist organisation in play here? Not in the old sense—the IRA is not that. But is this personal crime? That, I think, is open to question. The report of Committee A of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, on which I sit and which has support across this House and across all the parties in Dáil Éireann, drew attention to the fact that it appears to be a criminal empire designed to support a political party. That is a slightly different question. So there is need for reassurance. Lord Alderdice is quite correct: the IMC is not a simple solution to many problems. However, does the Minister accept that it could have a role in giving that reassurance and reinforcing the underlying political stability that does exist in Northern Ireland, because there is widespread community consensus in favour of the power-sharing institutions?

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has drawn attention to quite a number of practical considerations. I can confirm that the Government do regard this as an option that is worthy of consideration and it will certainly form part of the talks that are about to start.

My Lords, the chief constable has said that he accepts the assurances Sinn Fein has given that it wants to support the police in bringing those responsible for these murders to justice. It would be a very good idea for Sinn Fein to demonstrate openly how it will do this. Producing internal door-to-door inquiries of its own is tantamount to providing an alternative police force and it cannot do this legitimately. Therefore, I hope that Sinn Fein will now actively help the police find those responsible for the murders.

Does the noble Lord agree with the comments made by Mark Lindsay, the chair of the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, when he said that:

“It is a very worrying development if a command structure can be activated at will. Our members view developments with great and justifiable concern. Officers are doing their best to police and safeguard this entire community and that means there is no place for murder gangs or paramilitary organisations which have nothing but misery to offer”?

The truth is that the leaders of some of the parties in Northern Ireland have not been doing their job to solve the problems that are still faced there. Some of the language they use is deeply unhelpful. It is vital now that they step up and help solve the problems that people living over here find incomprehensible after all the time and money that we have spent on Northern Ireland. It has been done in the past—it needs to be done now and urgently.

I very much agree with the noble Baroness that the Police Service of Northern Ireland needs the support of the community in pursuing these investigations. If people have information that will help the police with their inquiry, we would certainly encourage them to come forward.

My Lords, there is very little in this Statement that anyone here would disagree with and I thank the Minister for it. However, I think the reason there would be very little disagreement is that there is actually very little that is new in it. As my noble friend Lady Blood pointed out, these events have been going on for some time now. There is, however, one significant new element, which is the expressed intent of the Government to, as they put it, as a last resort be prepared to legislate here at Westminster. For those of us with a sense of déjà vu—I declare an interest, as I was involved, I think, as Secretary of State in three suspensions—this is a profound statement wrapped up in rather quiet words. Can the Minister therefore confirm to us that what this actually means is a suspension of the legislative powers in that area at Stormont, or is there another way of legislating here on a subject which is, after all, devolved?

The second question relates to the predication of that intention not on the political differences per se and particularly not, as the Statement makes clear, on the murder of Mr McGuigan, but on the real prospect that the Executive will start running out of money, not least in the public services and no doubt starting with health. In view of that link between the Government’s intention, presumably, to suspend Stormont—or at least to take legislative powers here from Stormont—and the running-out of money, the Government must have carried out some estimate of how imminent that is. Given that Parliament will rise next week, this is an important question. I notice that the Minister said that the situation is already difficult, but is he in a position to be a little more specific and tell us whether we are talking about a period of a week, a fortnight, a month or two months? As I have said, these innocent-seeming words have a profound implication for those of us who have lived through such a situation before if it results in the suspension of power-sharing at Stormont.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. The first thing that I need to make clear is what I said earlier: that the Government do not think that suspension of the devolved institutions is right in the current circumstances. The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that the budgetary situation is acute. That is why these talks will be intensive, urgent and focused, and will last between three and four weeks.

On welfare reform, as I said earlier, if all other options have been exhausted and given the acuteness of the budgetary situation, the Government would be prepared as a last resort and extremely reluctantly to legislate here in Westminster on welfare reform.

My Lords, in the penultimate sentence of the Statement there is a reference to “few short weeks”, and the Minister has amplified that by saying three or four weeks. Pursuant to that, the noble Lord, Lord Reid, came back to the subject of time. Given the scale of the agenda which has been set out before us today, will the talks be time-limited and, if so, for how long?

I thank my noble friend. I do not think that I have anything to add to what I have already said on that matter.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement. Let me say clearly to the House that these are very serious issues. We are probably in the worst situation in Northern Ireland since 2006 or 2007. I have been saying for some time to the parties in Northern Ireland that I believe the Assembly has been on a life-support machine for a long time—the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was right. As far back as 2 June, after the Secretary of State met the five parties along with Charlie Flanagan, the Foreign Affairs Minister from Dublin, she made clear how bleak was the outcome of those talks and warned us of the possibility of Westminster taking back powers relating to welfare reform. I believe that that would be a backward step, and the Secretary of State has said that it would be a last resort.

The other issue in Northern Ireland is the breakdown of trust within the parties. This, too, has been going on for several months. I ask the Government what action they can take to try to build trust in all the political parties in Northern Ireland.

I also firmly believe—and say to the House—that the only way that this can be resolved is by staying in, not by walking away. It cannot be resolved by people standing at the door and shouting in; they must be in there, round the table, trying to resolve these very serious issues.

On the issue of recreating in some form the IMC, I have to say that it would not work at this moment, unless it had a different remit with different powers.

I also ask the question: given the seriousness of the situation, will the Minister tell the House whether the Prime Minister has any plans to visit Northern Ireland and take part in the talks?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. On the latter point, I have no information to share with the House at this point. I very much agree with what he said about building trust and confidence. The best way to achieve that is to get people round the table to discuss in a very focused way the challenges that face Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that the best route forward for Northern Ireland is the full implementation of the Stormont House agreement. Without progress on that, there is a real threat to the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland. I reiterate that these talks are not a renegotiation; they are about a full and fair implementation of what the parties have already agreed.

Should not all of us throughout the United Kingdom remember the courage of my noble friend Lord Trimble and John Hume, and the courage and imagination of the late Lord Bannside and Mr McGuinness at that difficult stage, and should we not realise that if welfare reform is indeed taken back into the Westminster Parliament, that will be not the last resort but the first step towards direct rule being reimposed? That would be an ill vote of thanks to those who have struggled so much, and a very sad new chapter for that part of the United Kingdom.

I echo what my noble friend said about the original architects of the Good Friday agreement. All of us in this House should recognise that the Stormont House agreement of December 2014 was a fantastic achievement by all the parties in Northern Ireland. I hope that the message will go out from this House that we want to build on that achievement. That is what the talks that will start this evening are all about.