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Northern Ireland Assembly

Volume 764: debated on Thursday 10 September 2015

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the demand of the First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly for an immediate adjournment or suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly within 24 hours.

My Lords, the question of an adjournment of the Northern Ireland Assembly is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. I understand that the Assembly Business Committee is meeting this afternoon to consider this proposal.

I thank the Minister for that Answer, which of course did not refer to suspension of the Assembly, which is not within the remit of the Northern Ireland Business Committee but within the powers of the British Government. Only two days ago, the Government said that they had no intention to suspend the Assembly. Yesterday, in what is effectively an ultimatum, the First Minister of Northern Ireland said that unless the Assembly was adjourned by the Northern Ireland Business Committee, which is meeting today, or suspended by the British Government, he and the DUP members of the Executive would resign, effectively bringing down power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

I understand the difficulties the Government have, since one of the options does not take place until 2 o’clock this afternoon, and they will not know the outcome of whether there is to be an adjournment within the power of the Northern Ireland Business Committee until that stage. I do not wish to add to the Minister’s difficulties, and I understand that the Government will not wish to say anything prematurely. However, this is a very grave issue indeed.

I will ask the Minister two simple questions. The first refers to the Government themselves. Will they assure us that, at the earliest possible moment after the Northern Ireland Business Committee has met this afternoon, they will bring this issue back to the British Parliament? Secondly, as regards the talks being convened by the Northern Ireland Secretary, which may be under way at present, will the Government give us an assurance that these will be time-limited? If they are not, I can assure him from experience that they will drift on indefinitely, and this crisis will just get worse.

The noble Lord brings vast experience of Northern Ireland to these matters. Indeed, when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he went through a period of suspension, and he will appreciate the seriousness of any step to suspend. As the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already set out, the Government do not think that the time is right to suspend devolved institutions. If circumstances change, the Government will review their options. Clearly, this is a fast-moving situation, and I am sure that the Government would want to keep Parliament informed, and will certainly do so. We had exchanges on this yesterday, and I very much agree that any talks need to be focused, intensive and urgent and, therefore, time limited.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, for bringing this PNQ forward and to the Government for responding to it. We are also grateful for the assurance from the Minister that Parliament will be kept informed of the situation as it develops because, as has been agreed, it is so important that that happens. As the Minister also rightly said, this is and will be a fast-moving situation, and we welcome his assurance that they will report back to Parliament as soon as possible. I am sure that all noble Lords are aware of the deep concern across Northern Ireland and the whole of the United Kingdom about this situation, which is a dangerous one. We place on record that we are fully behind the Government in their efforts to resolve this very serious situation.

Just to reiterate, this is an ongoing situation, and the parties will consider the issue of adjournment this afternoon in the Business Committee. While we want to keep Parliament informed as appropriate, it is also worth saying that, in a fast-moving situation, it would not be helpful for the UK Government to give a running commentary on what are very sensitive and serious matters.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, when the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my noble friend Lord Brooke, and I conducted the very first set of round-table talks, the end-point of which many years later was the agreement, we made it clear that those talks were time-limited? Both of us believed that the fact that they were time-limited and that we kept to the limit was a significant factor in moving the talks forward. Bearing in mind the well-established allegations that Northern Ireland may run out of money at the end of October, would he not strengthen his original Answer and agree that time-limiting the talks is of itself an important factor?

My noble friend is absolutely right—the budgetary situation in Northern Ireland is acute, which is why the Secretary of State has made it clear that these talks need to be focused, urgent and intensive. The expectation is that they would last between three to four weeks.

I welcome the PNQ from the noble Lord, Lord Reid, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that the situation in Northern Ireland is extremely serious and it is vital that important and constructive discussions on the future of devolved government and on the Stormont House agreement take place. Surely, this is the time for all Northern Ireland parties to consider the welfare of the whole community, rather than seeking short-term political advantage. Does the Minister agree that it would be useful to have a short adjournment of the Assembly, as that would facilitate positive discussions, free from the wrangling that inevitably accompanies everyday parliamentary business?

I very much agree with the noble Lord that there is support for devolution across the community in Northern Ireland. Our priority remains keeping the devolved institutions functioning. As I said earlier, the adjournment of the Northern Ireland Assembly is a matter for the Assembly, and we await the outcome of the Business Committee’s considerations this afternoon.

My Lords, on the one hand, we hear of suspension; on the other, there is the threat of abdication. I am absolutely certain that talks are the most important thing. First, will the Minister assure us that the Government will go to every length to ensure that talks take place and that they keep going? Secondly, will he assure us that, if there is failure, alternatives are in place for the good governance of Northern Ireland?

I can certainly give the noble Lord the assurance that our focus is on the talks and on those talks reaching a successful outcome. That is the focus of all our activity at the moment.

My Lords, first, can the Minister confirm that the present crisis is due to some members of the IRA being involved in terrorist activity and killing people? That has brought about the crisis. Secondly, can the Minister confirm that adjournment is far preferable to suspension? Adjournment means that devolution continues in Northern Ireland; suspension means that it is abolished and will later have to be restored. Will he therefore confirm that adjournment is the preferable option? Thirdly, does he agree that something similar to the Independent Monitoring Commission, which was abolished, would be helpful in the present security situation? Finally, does he agree that one of the weaknesses of the cross-party Executive at Stormont was the fact that there was no cross-party Opposition? Will he bear that in mind?

Paramilitary activity is clearly a very serious matter. The scope of the talks is one of two aspects, the other being the implementation of the Stormont House agreement, which is very much the focus of the talks. The IMC is one option for consideration. As we discussed yesterday when these matters were brought up, the current situation is very different from the one that existed in 2004, when the IMC was originally set up. Clearly, we would have to ask such a body very different questions today.