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Northern Ireland: Political Agreement

Volume 767: debated on Thursday 19 November 2015


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

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement on the agreement reached this week in the cross-party talks at Stormont. But first I would like to pay tribute to Peter Robinson, who announced this morning that he will soon be standing down as First Minister and leader of the DUP. Peter has been a central figure in Northern Ireland politics for over four decades. In his long and distinguished record of public service both in this House and the Assembly, he has championed the interests of Northern Ireland with unparalleled effectiveness, determination and dedication. Peter was key to the agreement reached this week and he can be rightly proud of his contribution. I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing him a long and happy retirement.

Last December, the Stormont House agreement was reached after 11 weeks of negotiations between the five largest Northern Ireland parties and the UK and Irish Governments. That agreement addressed some of the most difficult challenges facing Northern Ireland, including: the finances of the devolved Executive; welfare reform; flags and parades; the legacy of the past; and reform of the Assembly to make devolution work better. All of this was underpinned by a financial package from the UK Government that would give the Executive £2 billion in extra spending power.

In the Government’s view, the Stormont House agreement was, and remains, a good deal for Northern Ireland. By the summer, however, it was clear that implementation had stalled. There were strong differences of opinion within the Executive over the budget and the implementation of the welfare aspects of the agreement, and these were preventing other elements of the agreement going forward. We were facing a deadlock, which, left unresolved, would have made early Assembly elections more and more likely, with an ever-increasing risk that the collapse of devolution would follow. After all that has been achieved in Northern Ireland over recent years, a return to direct rule from Westminster would have been a severe setback, and it is an outcome which I have been striving to avoid.

In August, a second issue arose to threaten the stability and survival of devolution. The suspected involvement of members of the Provisional IRA in a murder in Belfast raised the spectre of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland and its malign and unacceptable impact on society. Faced with these circumstances, we concluded it was necessary to convene a fresh round of cross-party talks with the five main Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish Government on matters for which they have responsibility, observing the well-established three-strand approach.

The talks began on 8 September and ran for 10 weeks. The objectives we set were twofold: first, to secure the implementation of the Stormont House agreement; and, secondly, to deal with continued paramilitary activity. I believe that the document published on Tuesday, A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan, makes real progress towards fulfilling both these objectives. Crucially, it tackles the two issues that have posed the greatest threat to the stability and survival of devolution in Northern Ireland.

First, on the Stormont House agreement, the new agreement will help give the Executive a stable and sustainable budget, assisted by further financial support of around £500 million from the UK Government. These funds are to help the Executive tackle issues unique to Northern Ireland. They include support for their programme of removing so-called peace walls and an additional £160 million to assist the Police Service of Northern Ireland in its efforts to combat the threat from dissident republican terrorists. The package also paves the way for completion of the devolution of corporation tax powers to the Northern Ireland Executive, something which could have a genuinely transformative effect on the Northern Ireland economy. The measures in the Stormont House agreement designed to address issues around flags and parades will now go ahead. There is also agreement on reforms to the Executive and Assembly to make devolution work better, including on the size of the Assembly, the number of government departments, use of the petition of concern and provision for an Official Opposition.

Secondly, the agreement takes Northern Ireland’s leaders further than ever before on paramilitary activity. It strongly reaffirms the commitment to upholding the rule of law and makes it absolutely clear that in no circumstances will paramilitary activity be tolerated. The agreement places new shared obligations on executive Ministers to work together towards ridding society of all paramilitary groups and actively challenging paramilitary activity in all its forms, and commits all participants to a concerted and enhanced effort to combat organised and cross-border crime, which the UK Government will help to fund.

A key element of the Stormont House agreement on which we were unable to agree a way forward was the establishment of new bodies to deal with the past. We did establish common ground between the parties on a range of significant questions on how to establish these important new structures but, sadly, not enough to enable legislation to go forward as yet. The Government continue to support these provisions because of the pressing need to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors—the people who, we must never forget, have suffered more than anyone else as a result of the Troubles. So it is crucial that we all now reflect on what needs to be done to achieve wider consensus to get the new legacy bodies set up.

I want to emphasise that in very large part, the agreement takes on board a wide range of points made by all five Northern Ireland parties during the 10 weeks of talks that have just concluded. As the overwhelming majority of issues were in devolved areas, this agreement has rightly been driven by Northern Ireland’s elected leaders, in particular the First and Deputy First Ministers. I reiterate my sincere thanks to them and to all the five parties which worked with determination and commitment in the talks. Thanks go, too, to my honourable friend the Northern Ireland Minister and to Ministers Charlie Flanagan and Seán Sherlock from the Irish Government, who devoted many long hours to this process and made an invaluable contribution to its successful outcome.

Implementation of this week’s agreement is already under way. On Tuesday, the Executive voted to support it. Yesterday, the Assembly passed an LCM on welfare reform legislation at Westminster and the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill will be introduced to Parliament this afternoon. I believe this package as a whole gives us the opportunity for a fresh start for devolution. It is a further stage in delivering the Government’s manifesto commitment to the implementation of the Stormont House agreement. It is another step forward towards a brighter, more secure future for everyone in Northern Ireland, and I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for his Statement and for the early sight of it. In the House of Commons, my honourable friend Vernon Coaker has paid due tribute to Peter Robinson and his contribution to society in Northern Ireland. I endorse and support that tribute; I have been a friend of Peter Robinson since our days together on the House of Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland and always found him a straight talker. What he said, he meant—and he always fulfilled—so I join in the tributes to him. His contribution to peace and progress in Northern Ireland has been immense. He has taken tough decisions. Most recently, in an interview in the Belfast Telegraph, he called for complete co-operation between the nationalist and unionist communities. Northern Ireland is a better place in no small part thanks to his work. I wish him and his whole family well.

I also compliment all those who have contributed to the document, including the Irish Government. It is a document which, despite some obvious challenges and, indeed, omissions, once again offers Northern Ireland a way forward—one more stepping stone towards the brighter, better future that the people of Northern Ireland want and deserve.

Does the Minister agree that the implementation of the agreement is crucial and that the people of Northern Ireland do not want to be faced in a year or two years with yet another crisis? This really has to be a fresh start. Is the Minister, like me, confident that the measures contained in the agreement really offer a way forward in a number of areas?

In particular, we welcome the commitment to bring an end to paramilitarism. Paramilitary activity has to end, and the proposal for a new strategy to bring this about, overseen by a panel, is critical. As Vernon Coaker said in the House of Commons, there are also worries about the attraction of these groups for some young people. Apparent easy money, lack of career opportunities, educational underachievement and a false belief that membership of such groups can give them status have to be tackled, with many of them having grown up in relative peace.

Will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State will use her position to ensure that countering the attraction of those groups for some young people is one of the strategic priorities, as I believe it must be? Will the Minister say more about how, in establishing the joint agency task force, cross-border co-operation will work, what resources there will be for the PSNI and whether he expects prosecutions to increase? We also welcome the confirmation of the work to be undertaken with respect to flags and parades. Does the Minister agree that that aspect is crucial?

Does the Minister share my disappointment that no agreement with respect to legacy issues and the past has been possible? Collectively, we have done well to get here, but unless something concrete is done on legacy issues, the potential is there to return again and again to difficult situations. Will the Minister say more about the issues and how he believes that they can be resolved? For example, how will the clash between national security and disclosure be resolved? Clearly, victims and survivors have to play a key part in any agreed process. We all understand that dealing with the past is incredibly difficult, with competing narratives and contested versions of events, but a comprehensive approach is vital to continuing progress in Northern Ireland.

Does the Minister agree that in the search for truth and justice, they often seem unobtainable, yet is it not the case that the people of Northern Ireland and their politicians have made an apparently impossible compromise and built consensus when none seemed likely—thanks in large measure to Members of your Lordships’ House?

Will the Minister ensure that further efforts are made to deal with the past? We cannot let this slide; we really must tackle it. What plans do the Government have to meet victims to discuss a way forward? Given that there is no agreement, is funding to be made available to the PSNI to continue its legacy work as a contribution to settling this difficult past?

The House has also been asked to legislate on welfare reform, and we will not oppose those measures, but I must say that for Northern Ireland, as for the whole of the United Kingdom, a programme for jobs and growth is also needed. What measures are there in the agreement, over and above the devolution of corporation tax, which will achieve that while also improving infrastructure?

In conclusion, as I said at the beginning, this is a stepping stone towards a shared future. Of course, there are frustrations and disappointment at the inability to reach agreement on legacy issues—that is the one big task still facing us jointly—but could not the alternative have been a situation where the devolution settlement itself was at risk, with a return to direct rule, both of which are surely unthinkable? So, whatever people see as its imperfections, whatever faults people come up with, justified or unjustified, and whatever people see as being a disappointment, there is another breathing space and another opportunity for Northern Ireland to move forward to combat criminality, banish paramilitarism, tackle sectarianism and have a stable Government financially and politically. That opportunity must be grasped, outstanding issues resolved and a fresh crisis avoided in a year or two. The people of Northern Ireland deserve and expect no less, and Her Majesty’s Official Opposition will be fully behind this.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement in your Lordships’ House and endorse fully what has been said about Peter Robinson, who announced overnight that he was stepping down as leader of the DUP. He has played a significant role in Northern Ireland politics for some 40 years.

We welcome the fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein have been able to reach an agreement with the British and Irish Governments, but we are disappointed that the agreement was not more comprehensive. Significantly, the parties were unable to make progress on the fundamental issues arising from the Haass talks in 2013—for example, on parades, flags and dealing with the past. This is a considerable failure for the agreement. However, although the deal has been agreed and will prevent the collapse of the devolved institution, the package of measures is not a comprehensive outcome and does very little to tackle the underlying issues of the divided society in Northern Ireland. The failure of the political parties to come to an agreement on those issues has the potential to undermine public confidence in politics, devolved institutions and the peace process as a whole. It is clear that these issues will have to be settled for the good of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Of course, we welcome any agreement that sustains the Assembly and we are content to support the fast-track welfare Bill. But is it not the case that this agreement does not take us beyond or even, arguably, as far as the Stormont House agreement of 2014? How do the Government propose to assist, or at the very least encourage, the parties to address the unresolved question of flags, parades and the legacy of the past? What further progress can be made towards a genuinely shared future in Northern Ireland? The additional government financial support of £500 million to assist the Executive in tackling issues unique to Northern Ireland, including support for the programme to remove the peace walls, is welcome.

We very much welcome the agreement’s initiative to tackle paramilitarism and organised crime. The new commitment by all politicians to uphold the rule of law is to be strongly welcomed. There is no place in a democratic society for paramilitary activity. We also welcome the additional funding for the PSNI. Can the Minister give further details on how this will be used? Will there be scope for some of this funding to be used for further recruitment of officers to continue to tackle all crimes in Northern Ireland?

I thank noble Lords for their words and for the indication of bipartisan, cross-party support, particularly to get the legislation on welfare reform through this House. I agree very much that the implementation of the deal is absolutely crucial, and we should be in no doubt that the agreement has broken a real impasse in Northern Ireland politics and offered a prospect of a brighter future for Northern Ireland. Critical to this is a thriving economy. The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, mentioned this and it will be critical as we go forward. The deal unlocks not just the corporation tax powers but £2 billion of additional spending power that was part of the original Stormont House agreement.

The noble Lord mentioned the need to stop young people being drawn into criminal activity, and I agree very much that that is a crucial part of any strategy to deal with paramilitarism. Of the new money coming forward in this agreement, £25 million will be used to support the strategy to deal with paramilitary activity. Further work is required on the details of the joint agency task force, but it will be underpinned by £160 million extra security funding to make that activity fully effective.

On the importance of dealing with flags, identity, culture and tradition, the agreement makes provision for the creation of a new commission on these matters and on the commitments into which the Northern Ireland Executive has entered. We are all disappointed that it has not been possible to include the institutions that were part of the original Stormont House agreement to deal with the past as part of this agreement. The Government are committed to reflect with the parties the best way to take this forward because, as I said yesterday, victims and their families need to achieve closure in these matters.

I reiterate that I welcome the commitment that the parties opposite will not stand in the way of the welfare reform legislation.

Disclosure was mentioned. It is a tricky issue, and it is important to balance transparency with a duty to ensure that information release must not damage our ability to protect people.

This agreement offers Northern Ireland the prospect of a brighter future, and the important work of detailed implementation now starts.

My Lords, the existence of private armies anywhere within the United Kingdom presents a challenge to the authority of the United Kingdom Government, and responding to the existence of private armies should be with the Government in the lead. Pretty words said in the Executive are all very good and well, but it requires something more effective. The reason that the original Independent Monitoring Commission was effective at dealing with paramilitaries was that it had the power to sanction those bodies. Furthermore, not just the character of the persons who were in it but its independence had the effect of keeping the Northern Ireland Office honest and inhibiting its tendency to brush things under the carpet. We are missing on both those counts.

My noble friend speaks with huge authority on these matters. With regard to paramilitary activity, the assessment done a few weeks ago showed that all parties in Northern Ireland are committed to the political path. Under this agreement, all the parties have signed up to ambitious commitments to eradicate paramilitary activity. A strategy must be agreed. It needs to be backed by the joint agency task force. The monitoring body is a crucial part of this agreement. It will need, at a date in the future, to be given statutory underpinning and will be the subject of an international agreement with the Irish Government.

I declare an interest as co-chairman of the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland, which published its report some years ago. Will the Minister tell us more about the efforts of Her Majesty’s Government to unravel the continuing problem of how we deal with the legacy issues, because so many other issues that he mentioned in the Statement are linked with the way in which we deal with the past? Will he enlighten the House about how the Government propose to tackle that part of the problem?

I am not sure that at this stage I can give more detail than I have already given. The Government are disappointed that creating the institutions to deal with the past does not form part of this agreement. However, it remains a huge priority for the Government to deal with the issues of the past and take forward what was in the original Stormont House agreement to get these institutions set up. I think we can be optimistic that some very intractable issues, such as welfare reform and budgetary issues, have been dealt with in the agreement. That shows what can be achieved with good will and all the parties getting around the table. We need to bring that same spirit to how we take forward the issues that were not included in the agreement, and that will be a high priority for the Government.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I very much welcome the successful conclusion of the talks and the new fresh start agreement, which sets out a practical course to consolidating peace, stability and helping to promote economic development in Northern Ireland. I, too, pay tribute to my party leader, Peter Robinson, for his tireless work on achieving reconciliation in our community over a number of years.

I particularly welcome the additional security funding of £160 million for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to address the continuing severe national security threat, and to tackle continued paramilitary activity and criminality. However, will the Minister provide clarification about the nature of the severe national security threat and what steps the PSNI will be expected to take to address it?

In this House a few weeks ago we had a Statement about the assessment that had been made. The Government continue to agree with that assessment, and I am not sure that I can add more at this stage to what was said on that occasion. Clearly, though, we are determined to tackle organised criminal activity, which has such a corrosive effect on the well-being of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I take this opportunity to wish Mr Robinson well in his retirement. However, I wish to disabuse the House of any idea that this is a five-party agreement. The document was pushed in front of our faces at 3 pm on Tuesday, and that applied to three out of the five parties. The final plenary session of the talks process was one hour later, and no one should be required to absorb a 67-page document in one hour. So let us be clear: this is a two-party agreement, it is less than the one that we had Statements on a year ago and huge areas are unresolved.

Will the Minister address the fact that the reason why we have a huge impasse here is not only that Sinn Fein reneged on the agreement on welfare that was made a year ago but the four consistent years of massive financial mismanagement? We are now faced with the situation that the budgets were known four years ago but no action was taken to meet expenditure on budgets, which meant that for the first time since 1921 Stormont could not balance its books. Secondly, and worse, we are now being allowed to borrow £700 million to pay off 20,000 public sector workers, instead of action having been taken at the time to gradually run things down by natural wastage and other mechanisms that would have cost the taxpayer nothing. Why did the Northern Ireland Office allow this situation to develop, watching millions of pounds of public sector money being squandered and wasted? What steps will the Minister take to ensure that the budget will be operated properly in future and that taxpayers will get value for money?

I thank my noble friend. I note what he says about the position of other parties. All the parties have been engaged over a 10-week process and, as I said, it has broken a very damaging impasse. I hope that all Northern Ireland politicians will want to get behind the agreement and build upon it.

As for the finances, welfare reform and putting the budget on a sustainable footing have been two of the most intractable problems that we have been grappling with. It is important to say that all the new money that is part of this agreement is contingent on the Northern Ireland parties meeting the commitments that they have entered into. The agreement includes spending to save measures and there is no free ride in it. In addition to the implementation of welfare reform, instilling fiscal responsibility into managing the finances of Northern Ireland is critical to the agreement. Additional financial controls are part of the agreement—it is no longer possible to set unrealistic budgets—and it makes provision for a new, independent fiscal council. These are all things that are really important to ensuring that we do not get into the financially risky situation that we have seen over the last few months.

What has been the actual cost of the prolonged welfare stand-off between Stormont and Westminster? When will the paramilitary structures highlighted so worryingly in the report published in September actually be dismantled? Are the Northern Ireland parties now confident that they can handle the consequences of the devolution of corporation tax, which I have long supported?

I cannot give my noble friend precise figures on the cost of welfare reform, but I am very happy to write to him with as much information as I can provide. Clearly, I cannot give a specific date for when paramilitarism will be eradicated from Northern Ireland, but I can give an absolute assurance to this House that this is a top priority for the Government.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that Sinn Fein was against the welfare changes. To avoid any blame game in the future, will the Minister confirm that all parties, including Sinn Fein, gave the Westminster Government power, through an Order in Council, to pass these welfare changes?

It was a very positive sign of the commitment to see that this agreement goes forward that the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a legislative consent Motion yesterday. That is a very positive development.

My Lords, paramilitarism will continue, even if the paramilitary forces are dismantled, for as long as the paramilitary instinct can find recruits among young people. I have some experience in this area and I remind my noble friend that one of the top priorities of young people emerging into adulthood is to achieve an identity of their own. They wish to stop being somebody’s son or somebody’s nephew and want to be themselves. An easy way to do that in times when paramilitarism is rife is simply to undertake acts of criminality, preferably very public and very damaging, whereupon they cease to be Paddy’s son or Maeve’s brother and become “a hard man”; they become recognised as somebody to be respected among their equals. Unless we provide them with alternative activity this will go on. It is no good waiting for the economy to pick up and for jobs to bloom; there have to be accredited voluntary organisations giving such people meaningful, constructive things to do. I hope that my noble friend will see that this is treated as a priority.

My noble friend has great experience of these matters and I agree very much with what he says. Community groups and organisations have a big part to play in creating a more prosperous, more stable future for Northern Ireland and we will certainly do what we can to support those groups.