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Northern Ireland: Political Developments

Volume 777: debated on Tuesday 10 January 2017


My Lords, with permission, I will 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:

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement about the political situation in Northern Ireland.

As the House will be aware, yesterday Martin McGuinness submitted his resignation as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. This also means that the First Minister, Arlene Foster, also ceases to hold office, though she is able to carry out some limited functions. Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, as amended by the St Andrews Agreement Act 2007, the position is clear. Should the offices of First and Deputy First Minister not be filled within seven days from Mr McGuinness’s resignation, then it falls to me as Secretary of State to set a date for an Assembly election. Although there is no fixed timetable in the legislation for me to do this, it needs to be within a reasonable period.

In his resignation letter Mr McGuinness said:

“In the available period Sinn Fein will not nominate to the position of Deputy First Minister”.

I am very clear that in the event of the offices not being filled, I have an obligation to follow the legislation. As things stand, therefore, an early Assembly election looks highly likely. I should add that the rules state that, once an election has been held, the Assembly must meet again within one week, with a further two-week period to form a new Executive. Should this not be achieved, as things currently stand I am obliged to call another election. So right honourable and honourable Members should be in no doubt: the situation we face in Northern Ireland today is grave and the Government treat it with the utmost seriousness.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on how we have reached this point. The immediate cause of the situation we now face is the fallout from the development and operation of the Northern Ireland renewable heat incentive scheme. Under the scheme launched by the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2012, which is equivalent to a scheme in Great Britain, businesses and other non-domestic users were offered a financial incentive to install renewable heat systems on their premises. The scheme was finally shut to new applicants in February last year when it became clear that the lack of an upper limit on payments, unlike in the GB equivalent, meant the scheme was open to serious abuse. In recent weeks there has been sustained media focus and widespread public concern about how this situation developed.

The renewable heat incentive scheme was, and remains, an entirely devolved matter in which the UK Government have no direct role. It is primarily the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to take the necessary action to address the concerns that have been expressed about it. But I do believe it is imperative that a comprehensive, transparent and impartial inquiry into the development and implementation of the scheme needs to be established as quickly as possible. In addition, effective action needs to be taken by the Executive and Assembly to control costs. While the RHI might have been the catalyst for the situation we now face, it has however exposed a number of deeper tensions in the relationship between parties and within the Northern Ireland Executive. This has led to a breakdown in the trust and co-operation that is necessary for the power-sharing institutions to function effectively.

Over the coming hours and days I will continue to explore whether any basis exists to resolve these issues prior to my having to fulfil my statutory duty to call an election. I have been in regular contact with the leadership of the DUP and Sinn Fein and with the Justice Minister, Clare Sugden, an Independent Unionist. Yesterday evening I had a round of calls with the main opposition parties at Stormont. I am in close touch with the Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan. Immediately after this Statement I will return to Northern Ireland, where I will continue to do whatever I can to find a way forward. Both the UK and the Irish Governments will continue to provide every possible support and assistance to the Executive parties. We do, however, have to be realistic. The clock is ticking. If there is no resolution then an election is inevitable, despite the widely held view that an election may deepen divisions and threaten the continuity of the devolved institutions.

Mr Speaker, over recent decades Northern Ireland’s politicians have rightly earned plaudits from across the globe for their ability to overcome differences and work together for the good of the whole community. It has required courage and risk on all sides. We are currently in the longest period of unbroken devolved government since the 1960s. This political stability has been hard gained and it should not be lightly thrown away. In the 14 months since the fresh start agreement, significant advances have been made in areas such as addressing paramilitarism, supporting shared and integrated education and putting the Executive’s finances on a sustainable footing. This summer’s parading season has passed off peacefully, and the long-running dispute in north Belfast has been resolved. We have also been working intensively to build the necessary consensus to bring forward the bodies to address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, as set out in the Stormont House agreement.

I am in no doubt that what Northern Ireland needs at this time is strong, stable devolved government, not a collapse of the institutions. Northern Ireland deserves fair, accountable, stable and effective government. It needs to continue to implement the Belfast agreement and its successors, to strengthen the economy, to ensure that Northern Ireland responds to the challenges and opportunities presented by the EU exit, to build a stronger, shared society in which there is respect for everyone, and to address the legacy of the past in a way that enables Northern Ireland to move forward. We must not put all this at risk without every effort to resolve differences. We must continue to do all that we can to build a brighter, more secure Northern Ireland that works for everyone. I therefore urge Northern Ireland’s political leaders to work together and come together to find a way forward from the current position in the best interests of Northern Ireland. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. This is, as he said, a grave situation, and it is not where any of us want to be.

This House has a long memory and much expertise on its Benches, and we can remember a time when people across Northern Ireland did not know the peace that we see today. There has been a huge amount of progress that inspires hope in Northern Ireland. This was built on the hard work and compassion of the Northern Irish people throughout the community and a great many people across the political divide.

I pay tribute to Sir John Major for his role in a previous Conservative Government in kicking off such discussions. I also pay tribute to the noble Lords, Lord Trimble and Lord Alderdice, for their contribution to the position we have arrived at today. I also thank the many Members of your Lordships’ House who have contributed daily to the good will within the communities and to the peace we have achieved.

For the Labour Party, the Good Friday agreement is one of the greatest legacies of our Labour Government, and the contribution that we made to it was substantial. I am glad to see that my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen is here, because we all remember his terrific contribution to the maintenance of peace in Northern Ireland.

The situation today is a threat to the institutions that peace and reconciliation are based on. The Labour Party has no hesitation in offering its full support and any help that it can give the Secretary of State and the Government in seeking to maintain political stability in Northern Ireland.

We welcome the fact that the Secretary of State is in touch with all the major parties, as well as the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, and that he is in discussion with the Irish Government. We support the aim to facilitate talks and seek a resolution to this impasse before another election becomes inevitable. It may be regarded as a last throw of the dice—as a last resort—but surely, before the seven days is up, the Secretary of State must consider convening a round table of some import with the individuals concerned to have a final go at seizing this situation. However, I totally accept that many people feel that we may be past that point, as the Minister’s Statement made clear.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had about the work that will need to be done to support and stabilise the devolved institutions after the election, if one is called? The Minister referred to the widely held view that an election will change nothing on its own, so what preparation is being made to deal with that set of circumstances and the challenges that might lie ahead?

The Northern Ireland renewable heat incentive scheme was the final catalyst for the events that have brought us here, but the Minister is right to recognise that the situation occurred in the context of existing and far deeper tensions. That context includes a wider failure to resolve issues in dealing with the legacy of the past.

There has been the impression of a political vacuum on this issue in recent months, which has fed instability. I know what goes on behind the scenes, which is not broadcast, but life is about perceptions as well, and the legacy issue has been like a poison feeding into the well of public consciousness in Northern Ireland. I would like to see that work made more visible. What work is under way and what more does the Secretary of State plan to do to earn agreement on a path forward for those coping with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland?

On the renewable heat incentive scheme, what estimate have the Government made of the cost to the Northern Irish economy of the scheme’s failure? Has the Secretary of State spoken to the major parties in Northern Ireland specifically about setting up a comprehensive and impartial inquiry?

We all want Northern Ireland to look forwards to the future, to prosperity and to an enduring peace agreement. Division gets us nowhere. There are modern challenges facing Northern Ireland, not least of which is ensuring the best deal for the Northern Irish people in the UK’s exit from the European Union. We are at a crucial time for negotiation planning, so I must ask the Minister what impact the Government believe this instability, and a possible election period, will have on the representation of Northern Ireland in talks regarding the UK exit?

The world is watching. As has been said, there is widespread admiration for people on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, who have come together to ensure peace. The successes after decades of hurt and violence have earned admiration throughout the world. Any damage to the process of peace and reconciliation on our collective watch would be a great discredit to us and a great disservice to the people of Northern Ireland, who I am sure do not relish the thought of a possible election.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement to your Lordships’ House this evening.

As the Secretary of State has said, the truly peaceful society that we all wish to see in Northern Ireland is intricately bound together with politically stable institutions and a strong economy. It is therefore essential that the people of Northern Ireland have confidence that there is a coherent and collective Government in Stormont—a Government who are open and accountable and working in the best interests of the whole of Northern Ireland.

The stability of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland is more important now than ever, given the particular challenges that will be presented by Brexit in the coming months. It is clear that cool heads and calm leadership are needed in order to resolve the current difficulties. It is also clear that the crisis reveals deeper problems than the specific issues that have come to the fore in recent weeks. To that end, will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State will convene immediate talks with all the political parties in Northern Ireland? Will he also ensure that such talks do not just focus on the immediate issues in relation to the RHI scheme but look at measures to improve openness and transparency in the Executive, the Assembly and politics, including transparency in party funding in Northern Ireland?

Although I welcome the Secretary of State’s support for a comprehensive, transparent and impartial inquiry, can the Minister confirm that the Government will ensure that the establishment of this inquiry is not delayed by yesterday’s announcement, and that, if the Executive fail to establish an inquiry, this Government will consider doing so?

I am very grateful to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their remarks and, in particular, for all the thanks that the noble Lord expressed to all those who have played such an important part in the peace process over the years. I am also very grateful for the support they have given the Government in seeking a resolution to very difficult issues.

This is a time to come together and work together. Everyone in this House wants the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland to succeed. I have no doubt that this is the view of the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland and what they want to see. I have seen for myself, as I have travelled around Northern Ireland over the last six months, the huge progress that is being made and the many positive developments that are happening in all parts of Northern Ireland. The Government want to build on that progress and that is why the Secretary of State and the Government will strain every sinew in the short period ahead to work with all the parties in Northern Ireland to see if we can find a way forward. As the Secretary of State has made clear, he stands ready to assist in any way he can.

A number of specific points were raised. The noble Lord asked about an issue that is clear in the Statement I have just made—that an election may deepen the divisions and may not provide a solution. That is why the Secretary of State is so focused in the coming hours and days on finding a solution to the immediate issues. Regarding legacy, clearly it has been a priority for the Secretary of State to build a consensus on how we move forward from the current, very unsatisfactory situation where we do not have a balanced process in place. We must recall that 90% of the deaths that occurred over the period of the Troubles were the result of terrorist activity. He is absolutely committed to building a consensus on a more balanced and proportionate way forward, building on the Stormont House agreement legacy bodies, and he has articulated the priority he wants to give to that because he would like to move quickly to a public phase.

On the cost estimates of the renewable heat incentive scheme, the Northern Ireland Executive itself has estimated a figure of £490 million over 20 years if there is no mitigation. Clearly, one of the issues we need to deal with in the talks that are taking place with the parties over the next few days is how we mitigate those costs. As for the inquiry, that is absolutely something the Secretary of State is talking to the parties about. We need to establish the facts, accountability and ensure that we have a process that can command confidence. On the implications for the UK’s exit from the EU, the Secretary of State and other Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, including myself, have been engaging widely to identify the issues that need to be front and centre of the discussions as we proceed towards the negotiations on exit from the EU, and those discussions have included the Northern Ireland Executive. We want to make sure that we get a good deal for Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole, and the Secretary of State is very clear that the voice of Northern Ireland needs to be at the heart of those discussions. Clearly, that would be assisted if there was a fully functioning Northern Ireland Executive.

My Lords, first of all, in what way does the Minister think that an election, and indeed the suggestion of a second election, could in any way overcome the impasse caused by the RHI scheme? Secondly, I welcome very much his Statement that the Government will make every effort to support the Belfast agreement, because that is fundamental. I also welcome the Statement that they would like to see an impartial inquiry, and I am delighted that the First Minister in Northern Ireland also wants to see this. Finally, can the Minister confirm that, should these things fail, the Government will in no way repeat the errors of 1985 and go behind the backs of the people of Northern Ireland to reach an agreement with the Dublin Government? That would lead to the chaos which my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord King, well recalls and which the late Lady Thatcher subsequently said she very much regretted had occurred. The failure of the Anglo-Irish agreement must not be repeated.

Regarding the election, I think the Statement makes it clear that there is a risk that that does not provide the solution we are looking for and that it would deepen the divisions. That is why the Secretary of State’s immediate priority is to use the period that we have in the coming hours and days—the seven-day period—to see, in active discussion with all the political parties, whether we can find a way through this. However, the legislation is clear. If the posts are not filled within a seven-day period, the Secretary of State has to call an election. It would obviously be premature today to speculate on the precise timing, but he is clear that he has to do that within a reasonable timeframe. With regard to the Irish Government, clearly there has been close contact with the Irish Government Foreign Minister, while of course respecting the constitutional proprieties.

My Lords, it has been nearly 19 years since the Good Friday agreement and two years since the fresh start agreement. We have had an Assembly, but it has been a very dysfunctional Assembly. Part of the reason for that are the matters alluded to by the Minister in the Statement—the increased, deep tension and the breakdown of trust between the parties. Having listened to what the Minister said about the past, what are the Government going to do to enable mechanisms for dealing with the past—mechanisms devised years ago by Eames/Bradley—which would enable and encourage devolved government? I say to the Minister that the absence of mechanisms for dealing with the past leaves a reservoir of distrust, and that in part, I am quite sure, has contributed to that tension and breakdown in trust to which the Minister referred.

The legacy bodies that were envisaged by the Stormont House agreement do potentially provide a viable, balanced and proportionate way forward, recognising, as I said, that the status quo is very unsatisfactory. I am sorry for repeating this again, but the reason why the Secretary of the State is so focused on using this period to talk to all the parties to see whether there is a way through these very challenging issues is precisely that we need a functioning Executive to deal with these issues such as the legacy of the past, which has proved so difficult in allowing Northern Ireland to move forward. It has been a priority for the Secretary of the State and he has been in intensive discussions with all the parties to see whether we can build that consensus. He is very conscious that we will get only one chance to do this properly and we need to build that consensus.

My Lords, as a former holder of the post, I give my full support to the Secretary of State in every step that he takes to try to ensure that this does not end in the sad and tragic way that it could. It is almost by default, through political incompetence, Civil Service bungling and party posturing in Northern Ireland, which has led us to a situation where 10 years of devolved government since the historic settlement we negotiated in 2007, and 10 years of Good Friday negotiations prior to that, could be destroyed. As he has mentioned Brexit, will the Minister tell us how, if the Supreme Court rules that the devolved legislatures should, as they all requested, be consulted on Article 50, that can be complied with if there is no Northern Ireland Government?

At the risk of repeating myself again, that is the focus of the activity that the Secretary of State will be involved in over the coming hours and days during this seven-day period, to see whether we can find a way through. The noble Lord is absolutely right: we need a functioning Executive to deal with all the very pressing issues that will be of huge importance to Northern Ireland. Yes, there are challenges with Brexit, but there are opportunities as well, and we need to ensure that we exploit those. But be in no doubt that the voice of Northern Ireland will be heard loud and clear and will be at the heart of preparations for these negotiations. The Northern Ireland Office, the Secretary of State and myself have been engaging widely in Northern Ireland to pin down the key issues that need to be at the forefront of our minds as we approach those negotiations. However, as I said, the noble Lord is absolutely right: a fully functioning Executive will be of assistance in that process.

My Lords, the crisis at Stormont has been precipitated by gross ministerial incompetence, arrogance, greed and opportunism. I regret to say that the seeds of this debacle were sown in 2006, when the Government unilaterally changed the terms of the Belfast agreement on the appointment of the First and Deputy First Ministers. Does the Minister agree that, had the Government allowed proper parliamentary scrutiny of devolution instead of this wretched policy of “devolve and forget”, which we call the Sewel convention, we might not be facing the potential return of direct rule with all the risks that the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, has outlined—on which I entirely identify with and support him?

I note what the noble Lord says about the change in the method of selecting the First and Deputy First Ministers, and I acknowledge his long-standing position on this. However, as the Secretary of State made clear in the other place, the focus now must be on exploring whether there is any basis for resolving the current issues. There is huge support in Northern Ireland for devolution. The point about devolution—a point I have made in this House before—is that when powers are devolved to institutions, we need to support those institutions in discharging their responsibilities. The renewable heat incentive scheme is a fully devolved matter and we believe that the solution to that—with of course the support of the Secretary of State and the Government—needs to come from within the Northern Ireland institutions.

My Lords, I also welcome the Statement by the Minister. All this started with the renewable heat incentive scheme in the Assembly. But this is not about playing the blame game anymore. I welcome the continuing partnership between the Government, the Labour Party and the opposition parties on how we might resolve this issue, because there is no doubt that it needs to be resolved.

Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland it is not about the renewable heat initiative any more. As the former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland will know, this will grow legs—and I understand that other issues are now coming into the melting pot. They, too, will have to be resolved. The issue is being compounded by other political parties and individuals in and around this. The only way forward is for the politicians of Northern Ireland to come together and resolve the matter once and for all—because here we are again, and we will be here again next year.

I remember the early 2000s; the Assembly fell three times in almost four years when the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists were in charge. So let us stop the blame game and get to a point at which, eventually, all these issues—legacy issues and current issues—can be resolved. Will the Minister tell us whether there are any further initiatives or measures that the Government can bring to the table to resolve this? We have only one opportunity to resolve this and Assembly elections will not do it. We will come back after an election with the same situation, but worse. The Government must redouble their efforts to bring further measures to the table.

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I am sure he is absolutely right that, in this situation, we want the parties working together. The Secretary of State is very focused on doing that over the coming period. The noble Lord opposite made the suggestion that the Secretary of State might issue a formal invitation to a round table, and I am sure that initiatives of that sort will be considered by the Secretary of State as he continues his discussions with the parties.

My Lords, I was a direct rule Minister for five years in Northern Ireland, and it seems to me that the last thing Northern Ireland wants is a return to direct rule. Clearly, there has been a serious breakdown of trust and confidence between the political parties in Northern Ireland. I also agree with other noble Lords that an election, frankly, would be disastrous. There is one week in which to avoid that. Does the Minister agree that the guarantors of the Belfast agreement and the others that followed are the British and Irish Governments, and that they should work together very closely and carefully over the next week—even to the point at which the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach get involved?

I absolutely agree that we must, as I said in earlier remarks, strain every sinew to find a way forward. Clearly, there is contact with the Irish Government, but we must respect the constitutional priorities. What has given rise to this situation is the RHI scheme, which is a devolved matter. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland is clearly set out in the Belfast agreement and we need to respect that.

My Lords, sufficiently provoked by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, I will make one comment on my noble friend’s Statement. While I perfectly understand the importance of keeping the Irish Government informed, this is the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government, as it has always been—there has never been any question, at any stage, of joint authority, even during some of the most difficult issues and times.

Coming to my feet on this occasion, I cannot help reflecting on that awful couplet:

“To Hell with the future,

Thank God for the past”.

I will not repeat the last two lines, but I can see how easily we could go back to that unfortunate situation. I recall, tragically, that Northern Ireland has been an example to the world of how you can resolve long-standing difficulties. People have been invited from all over the world to visit Northern Ireland to see how competing traditions have managed to work together. That is the particular tragedy of this situation.

I understand that there is no immediate imperative and that if an election is to be called, there is no particular time within which it has to be called. That may allow for a certain opportunity to see whether some agreement can be reached to carry the country forward. It is the responsibility of all those in Northern Ireland. They can have a better future, and everybody in this House hopes that they will achieve it.

I thank my noble friend. As I said, obviously there has been close contact with the Irish Foreign Minister—but, as he rightly points out, we need to respect the constitutional proprieties, and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is clearly set out in the Belfast agreement. As for the timing, there is a seven-day period, after which the Secretary of State is obliged to call an election. There is no specified time period for that, but he has to do so within a “reasonable” period of time. Tonight it would be premature to speculate on a specific date.

My Lords, as one who was chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee throughout the 2005 Parliament, working closely with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and his successor, one thing that impressed me enormously was the priority and time given by Prime Minister Blair and Prime Minister Brown. They frequently paid tribute to the wonderful spadework of Sir John Major.

This should now be at the top of the parliamentary agenda in the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister should be involved. I was often in the company of the late Lord Bannside, Ian Paisley, and sometimes in the company of Mr McGuinness. I am sorry that he is so ill at the moment. We should appeal to him as well to play a part in getting everyone together. Will my noble friend convey to the Prime Minister that many of us in this House feel that she would be neglecting no duty in putting this at the top of her agenda for the immediate future? She should go to Northern Ireland and sit down with the political leaders there and explain to them what priority we attach to continuing what has been a very remarkable decade since 2007. I appeal to my noble friend to convey those sentiments to the Prime Minister.

Certainly, the sentiments of this House will be heard loud and clear. I hope that it is clear from the Statement that I have repeated today the gravity and seriousness that the Government attach to these matters and therefore the priority that we will give to them. In the discussions that the Secretary of State will have, he will obviously explore all avenues to see what might be helpful in resolving the current situation. We must not rule anything out in trying to seek that resolution.

My Lords, for more than 20 years I was a very regular visitor to Northern Ireland and I currently have an exemplary Northern Ireland son-in-law. Why does the Statement assume that an election will change nothing? We all know that power sharing is a very difficult concept to work out in practice, no doubt because of the lack of trust in a still deeply divided society. But, if the electorate wants to persevere with power sharing, they should penalise those who fail to deliver it. In theory, there could be a new coalition between official Unionists and the SDLP, but long-term thinking is also required beyond the present situation. A county council or GLC model might be more appropriate than what we have. At any rate, less emphasis is needed on legacies from the past and far more on positive and co-operative work for the future, based on civil society and local community relations.

I thank the noble Lord for his contribution. One can never predict the implications of elections. The Statement simply sets out the widely held view that an election may deepen divisions and threaten the continuity of devolved institutions. Clearly, we need to work and redouble our efforts to find a resolution, as I have already said.