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Northern Ireland Assembly Election

Volume 778: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2017


Mr Speaker, 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 should like to make a Statement regarding the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

As the House is aware, Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland on Monday 9 January, as a result of which the First Minister also ceased to hold office. This began a seven-day period in which to fill both positions, otherwise it would fall to me to fulfil my statutory obligations as Secretary of State to call a fresh election to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Over the past week, I have engaged intensively with Northern Ireland’s political parties to establish whether any basis existed to resolve the tensions within the Executive without triggering an election. I have remained in close contact with the Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan. In addition, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has also been kept fully informed and has had conversations with the former First and Deputy First Ministers and with the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny.

Regrettably, and despite all our collective efforts, it has not proved possible to find an agreed way forward in the time available. In the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday, the Democratic Unionist Party nominated Arlene Foster as First Minister, while Sinn Fein declined to nominate anybody to the post of Deputy First Minister. While I have some discretion in law over the setting of a date of an election, given the circumstances in which we find ourselves in Northern Ireland, I can see no case for delay. As a result, once the final deadline had passed at 5 pm yesterday, I proposed Thursday 2 March as the date of the Assembly election. The Assembly itself will be dissolved from 26 January, meaning that the last sitting day will be 25 January, allowing time to conduct any urgent remaining business before the election campaign begins in earnest.

I am now taking forward the process of submitting an Order in Council for approval by Her Majesty the Queen, on the advice of the Privy Council, formally setting in law the dates for both Dissolution and the election. In setting these dates, I have consulted the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, and he has given me assurance on operational matters relating to the running of the election. The decisions that I have taken have also been informed by my ongoing discussions with Northern Ireland’s political leadership.

All right honourable and honourable Members in this House will understand that elections, by their nature, are hotly contested. That is part of the essence of our democracy, and nobody expects the debates around the key issues in Northern Ireland to be anything less than robust. I would, however, stress the following. This election is about the future of Northern Ireland and its political institutions: not just the Assembly, but all of the arrangements that have been put in place to reflect relationships throughout these islands. That is why it will be vital for the campaign to be conducted respectfully and in ways that do not simply exacerbate tensions and division.

Once the campaign is over, we need to be in a position to re-establish strong and stable devolved government in Northern Ireland, and let me be very clear that I am not contemplating any outcome other than the re-establishment of strong and stable devolved government. For all the reasons I set out in my Statement last week, devolution remains this Government’s strongly preferred option for Northern Ireland. It is about delivering a better future for the people of Northern Ireland and meeting their expectations. For our part, the UK Government will continue to stand by our commitments under the Belfast agreement and its successors, and we will do all that we can to safeguard political stability.

Over the past decade, Northern Ireland has enjoyed the longest run of unbroken devolved government since before the demise of the old Stormont Parliament in 1972. It has not always been easy, with more than a few bumps in the road. But with strong leadership, issues that might once have brought the institutions down have been resolved through dialogue. Northern Ireland has been able to present itself to the world in a way that would have been unrecognisable a few years ago: a modern, dynamic and outward-looking Northern Ireland that is a great place to live, work, invest and do business.

Northern Ireland has come so far, and we cannot allow the gains that have been made to be derailed. So yes, we have an election, but once this election is over we need to be in a position to continue building a Northern Ireland that works for everyone. That is the responsibility on all of us, and we all need to rise to that challenge. In that spirit, I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in the other House. I am saddened to be standing here again responding to this Statement after our discussion last week. I know the whole House shares my regret that we have reached this impasse. We can only imagine the disappointment that is felt in communities across Northern Ireland. It has been only 10 months since voters in Northern Ireland went to the polls and in six weeks’ time, on 2 March, they will be asked to do so again. The Secretary of State has fulfilled a statutory duty to call an election where the positions of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are not filled within a seven-day period.

The Secretary of State must recognise, as I am sure he does, that he has a responsibility not only to call an election but to look to the future of Northern Ireland following that vote, and to work with all parties during this period to continue dialogue and ensure a return to strong, stable devolved government in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. I am sure he understands that the negotiations must always be confidential, not broadcast to the world, but to give people hope there have to be signs that the Secretary of State is being proactive in this period of the election. On that theme, what plans does the Secretary of State have to remain in conversation with all parties, as well as the other guarantor for the Belfast agreement and the Stormont agreement—the Irish Government—to continue a dialogue ahead of the days following the election?

The people of Northern Ireland must not be subjected to six weeks of increasingly acrimonious campaigning that leads nowhere. We have no hesitation in supporting the Government’s call for the political parties to remain open to dialogue and to conduct the election with respect, with a view to the future and the challenges they must face together as an Assembly in order to represent the interests of all the people in Northern Ireland.

We realise that the tension of an election campaign will dominate people’s focus and that the news agenda may be centred on other issues today, about which we have just heard in the previous Statement, but we must not lose sight of what is at stake here. This election and the weeks that follow are critical to the future of the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland, on which peace and prosperity have been based. A political vacuum and empty Assembly Chambers achieve nothing. We and those on all sides of the political debate wish to see continuing peace and prosperity, a growing economy and an improved quality of life for all in Northern Ireland.

We know that the RHI situation was only one part of what has led us here, and that it shed light on many deeper underlying tensions. Communities in Northern Ireland have still not seen enough progress on how we are to deal with the legacy of its unique and painful past and the experiences of victims and their families in Northern Ireland. While we still look for leadership on this sensitive and ongoing issue, each year brings new challenges of its own. Northern Ireland right now is facing the future of our exit from the EU and the specific impact and changes this will bring to this part of the UK, which is uniquely placed in sharing a land border with an EU member state.

Last week the Secretary of State gave assurances that there will be scope for the voice of Northern Ireland to be heard in the continuing run-up to our UK exit negotiations through the joint ministerial council. We seek further assurances that the election will not disrupt this intention, and that all parties are willing to continue to take part in UK exit negotiations.

We need a stable, working, power-sharing Government to move forward with these issues. This will require responsibility, trust and mutual respect on both sides. We have seen over the past decades what the courage and compassion of the Northern Irish people can achieve and, despite setbacks, we continue to have great faith in what can be done.

The UK Government have a responsibility as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday agreement, and we warmly welcome the explicit reference to those commitments in today’s Statement. The Labour Party is ready to do anything it can to assist the Government in the very serious situation they now face. When people go to the polls in a few weeks’ time, they will be voting for representation, for action and for their future. The priority for all Northern Irish parties and for all in Westminster in the weeks ahead must be to live up to the expectations of the Northern Irish people and return to a stable, functioning devolved Assembly.

We firmly agree with the closing sentiment of the Secretary of State’s Statement, and we hope that all parties will rise to that challenge in the weeks ahead.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, and I too very much regret that it has not been possible to find a way through the current crisis.

Northern Ireland has come such a very long way since the dark days of the Troubles. A great many people, including many Members of your Lordships’ House, have worked tirelessly, made sacrifices and accepted compromises to ensure that there is now a generation of young people in Northern Ireland who have grown up without the daily threat from terrorism. Like the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland I very much hope that, after the inevitable cut and thrust of the forthcoming election campaign, we can return full-heartedly to this process.

However, the incident in Poleglass at the weekend, where a viable explosive device was discovered, serves as an all-too-clear reminder that this process cannot be taken for granted. I take a moment to pay tribute to the PSNI officers and the Army bomb disposal team who worked in the area to ensure the safety of the local community.

I share the concern expressed by many in recent days that the forthcoming election campaign risks further entrenching division and increasing mistrust between the political parties in the Assembly. Northern Ireland now faces extremely important and difficult negotiations over Brexit—perhaps more so because of the Statement earlier today.

Now, more than ever, the people of Northern Ireland need a strong, functioning Government to ensure that their voice is heard. To that end, can the Minister guarantee that the Secretary of State will continue to consult all political parties in Northern Ireland on Brexit during the election period? Will he consider convening discussion with all political parties, as well as the wider community, in a format that will allow the proper space for informed thinking and debate to ensure the best outcome for all the people of Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations?

Finally, will the Minister ensure that there is no delay in establishing an independent inquiry into the RHI scheme? Such an inquiry is desperately needed to help to restore confidence and trust in politics in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I say first how grateful I am for the comments of the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. I understand the disappointment that will be felt on all sides of the House and all sides of the community in Northern Ireland at the situation that we find ourselves in. I give an absolute assurance to the House that the Secretary of State is aware of his responsibility to continue to take matters forward and seek a resolution. I echo the tribute that the noble Baroness paid to the security services and the PSNI, which do so much to keep all the community in Northern Ireland safe.

I also welcome the support of the parties opposite for the need to work together to re-establish strong devolved government in Northern Ireland. The Government are in absolutely no doubt that strong devolved government is in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland. It is incumbent on all of us to use the time between now and election day to maintain an open dialogue and consider how best to bring people back together once the election is over. In that regard the issue of engagement with the Irish Government was raised and, yes, of course the Government will maintain very close contact with the Irish Government so that we all use our good offices to seek resolution of these very challenging issues.

In the 10 years that Northern Ireland has enjoyed devolved government we have all seen the great strides made, and we owe a duty to the people of Northern Ireland to build on that progress. The UK Government are committed to doing that constructively and positively. As is made clear in the Statement, of course the election will be hotly contested, but we urge all the parties to conduct that election responsibly and with respect. Throughout the period, the Secretary of State and the Government as a whole will certainly keep open lines of communication to create the conditions that give us the best possible chance of establishing a fully functioning Executive after the election.

For the issues of dealing with the legacy of the past and dealing with preparing properly for the Brexit negotiations, it is in everybody’s interest to have a fully functioning Northern Ireland Executive. With regard to preparing for the Brexit negotiations, of course Northern Ireland Executive Ministers will remain in post throughout the period up to the election and invitations to take part in all the various meetings, including the joint ministerial committee, will be issued to the Executive. The Government are very keen to ensure that the Executive are represented as we continue discussions in the JMC.

Of course the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office as a whole will continue to seek views regarding the Brexit negotiations, and we have been very proactive in engaging stakeholders across Northern Ireland to pin down the key issues that we need to bear in mind. The Prime Minister’s speech today makes clear the priority we attach to Northern Ireland and to ensuring that its voice is heard loud and clear as we prepare for these negotiations.

My Lords, I wish to ask two questions. As the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, has indicated, the electors of Northern Ireland wish to have clarity, not least after the statement of the former Minister Mr Jonathan Bell in Stormont yesterday on what role First Minister Arlene Foster, others in the DUP and their spads played in the RHI debacle. Now that the Northern Ireland Executive have collapsed, and following the forthcoming election, if Sinn Fein/IRA maintains that it will not nominate for office in a new Executive, a strongly likely if not certain consequence is that we will not be able to form a new Administration. Will the Secretary of State establish a public inquiry under Section 205 of the Act into the RHI scandal?

Further, given that the Government have indicated that we are now leaving the single market and will not be full members of a customs union, how will the Government particularly ensure that trade can flow unhindered between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

Of course the Government agree that it is absolutely essential that we establish the facts and where accountability should lie around the renewable heat initiative scheme. As the Secretary of State made clear earlier in another place, clearly this is a devolved matter and we are firmly of the view that the best approach is that an independent inquiry should be established by the devolved institutions. It is absolutely vital that any inquiry needs to command the acceptance of all the political parties in Northern Ireland and provide widespread confidence across the community. Of course, the Secretary of State will continue to explore options during the election.

With regard to the issue about the border, the Government are absolutely clear that they do not want a return to the borders of the past. As we heard in the previous Statement, we are looking at all the practical options and solutions that will deliver the outcome that the Government want—the maintenance of the common travel area and frictionless trade across the border in the island of Ireland.

As my friends in all the parties in Northern Ireland will confirm, I hold no brief for any of them or I would not have been able to negotiate the settlement that we achieved in 2007, especially between the DUP and Sinn Fein. But just as unionists found in the Good Friday architecture comfort from the fact that a referendum protected their ambition to stay within the union, would the Minister accept that republicans and nationalists also found in that architecture that their legitimate political—not terrorist—ambition to reunite both halves of the island of Ireland was also protected? I believe that the current situation is very serious for the future. If republicans above all believe that, either through Brexit and the uncertainty over the border, whatever the Government say, or through the failure to show good will over issues important to them, such as the Irish language and equality issues, there is no progress on those questions, I fear that you could see an unravelling of the consensus that has been so painfully established over decades of negotiation. That is the danger that we face. Do the Government understand that?

First, I acknowledge the role that the noble Lord has played in the past in helping to set up the situation in which we have had the longest unbroken period of devolved government. Yes, of course, the Government are very alive to the seriousness of the situation, and it is absolutely clear that there has been a breakdown in the relationship between the two main governing parties. That is why we must use all the period between now and the election to maintain the lines of communication so that, in that three-week period that emerges following the election, we can create the conditions in which we stand the best chance of putting together a fully functioning Executive.

Will the Minister take very seriously the points that my noble friend Lord Hain made on the issues that need to be confronted in Northern Ireland? In the forthcoming month there will not be much time to talk to the political leadership in Northern Ireland, of all the parties, but the Northern Ireland Office knows what those issues are, and it must work overtime so that on 3 March the issues to which my noble friend and others have referred will be looked at and examined by the Northern Ireland Office and the Secretary of State, so that that solutions might be found and put on the table. It is not just about listening, although of course that is hugely important; it is about giving some ideas as well.

Secondly, as I said last week, there is a very important role for the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in all this, so that when the elections are over they too play a very full part in trying to come to a solution.

I thank the noble Lord, who has also played a very honourable and noble role in the peace process and in establishing and laying the ground for the period of devolved rule that we have had. On his second point, clearly the Prime Minister is actively involved. In the last 24 hours, she has spoken to the Taoiseach, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness. But as I think the noble Lord implicitly acknowledges, it is right in the first instance for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to take the lead, which he has been doing—and, of course, the Prime Minister stands ready to do all that she can to assist the process and discharge our primary responsibility for safeguarding the political stability of Northern Ireland. So we will use the period ahead to best effect to ensure that we are in the best position once the election is over.

In the course of the discussions that have taken place in the last week, has Sinn Fein indicated any willingness to return to the Executive after the elections? In particular, is there any suggestion that preconditions would have to be met before it did so?

I understand that my noble friend tempts me to disclose the subject matter of discussions which must necessarily be confidential. Those who have been involved in Northern Ireland for a long time know that the best chance of building trust and confidence is when discussions between the UK Government and the parties are kept confidential.

My Lords, it is with great sadness that I ask the Government two questions today. First, to what extent are the House and the Government aware of the deep distrust and dysfunction which have marked our politics for the last years? Since the last election, the Assembly has not been functioning. It has managed to pass one Act: the Finance Act is the only piece of legislation passed in the Northern Ireland Assembly. On 23 December it was announced that all our school budgets had been rejected by the education authority; our schools are in a parlous state. Yesterday, I heard that 97% of our GPs have signed resignation letters because of the parlous state of the health service. They are undated but the chairman of the General Practitioners Committee said that the situation is catastrophic. Although the Minister had to respond as he did to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, the reality is that we all know the conditions that Sinn Fein is putting on going back into government. Therefore, we all know that there will not be a Government. We will have an election, but we will not have an Assembly. The Government must have known this; they must have been informed of this by Northern Ireland Office officials over the past year or two. What do they mean to do now to exert positive pressure to enable the people of Northern Ireland to have an Assembly which can do that which has not been done for a long time?

I thank the noble Baroness. As I said in answer to a previous question, we obviously recognise the tensions that have existed and have led to a breakdown in the relationship between the main governing parties in the Executive. There are noble Lords in this House who are more experienced than I in the workings of Northern Ireland, and there have been many occasions when the parties there have faced what seemed to be insuperable challenges yet they overcame those challenges and found a way forward despite them. That is what the people of Northern Ireland now expect. It is for their political leaders to show leadership and work through the many difficult issues that need to be worked through so that we can achieve what everybody in the community in Northern Ireland wants: the continuation of strong and stable devolved institutions.

My Lords, it is impossible to exaggerate the gravity of the situation. The Secretary of State clearly cannot become involved in an election campaign, but can my noble friend assure me that he will be available throughout, in Northern Ireland, to consult with the individual parties contesting the election? I hope that my noble friend will agree that everything possible must be done before election day, to try to ensure that that very short period of three weeks results in another power-sharing Executive and not in another dissolution, another election and the imposition of direct rule.

I absolutely give my noble friend that assurance. The lines of communication will remain open. We need an open dialogue during this period. It is in everybody’s interest to make a success of devolved government. As the Secretary of State made clear earlier, he is not contemplating alternatives to the re-establishment of a fully functioning Executive.

My Lords, given the context of the current confusion, will the Minister consider the issue of natural justice for those of our servicemen who are accused of acts allegedly committed more than 40 years ago? Will something be done to stop that happening given that nothing has happened with regard to members of the IRA, for example, who have allegedly committed atrocities? I hope that this will not now go on the back burner because of all the confusion.

I thank the noble Lord. Certainly, the Government absolutely recognise the unsatisfactory nature of the current state of affairs. As I said earlier, we pay tribute to the work that the PSNI and the Armed Forces have done over the years in creating the conditions in which the peace process could develop, and of course the work will continue. It is very important to build a consensus. It is a high priority for the Secretary of State to bring about reform that brings about a fairer and more balanced and proportionate system for examining and dealing with the issues of the past. We will continue to do that. However, that is why—I come back to this point—we need to work so hard to get stable devolved institutions back functioning. The Stormont House agreement provided a framework. We believe that the legacy institutions set out in that agreement provide the basis for that fair, balanced and proportionate way forward on legacy issues.

My Lords, I too welcome the Statement. I have to say that it is a sad day for Northern Ireland. Many of us in this Chamber worked hard over a number of years to get where we are in Northern Ireland. No one in this Chamber should underestimate the huge challenge faced by our politicians in Northern Ireland after these Assembly elections in trying to put a power-sharing Government together in Northern Ireland. I want to tease out an issue from the Minister. In the Statement, the Secretary of State said:

“Once the campaign is over, we need to be in a position to re-establish strong and stable devolved government in Northern Ireland”.

Those are fine words. However, I think that that will be much harder to achieve because I believe that the election results will reflect a similar position to the one we have today. The demands of Sinn Fein may be very difficult for any of our politicians in Northern Ireland to meet. On this occasion, the Northern Ireland Office Secretary of State went to elections. I can understand why he did so but the next time round I hope that it will not be a case of having elections. It is all right talking to and meeting the parties, but what plans are the Government bringing forward to try to resolve this issue? Up until now, I have seen nothing. It was probably an easy option for the Secretary of State to go to elections. On the next occasion, it will not be an easy option. I ask the Minister, with great respect, what plans will the Government bring forward to the parties with their own ideas on solving this problem?

I thank the noble Lord. I say in reply to his question that the Government can have ideas but fundamentally this is about the relationship between the two main governing parties in the Executive. Primarily, they need to sit down round the table, work through the issues and put together a viable proposition for governing in a devolved situation in Northern Ireland. The UK Government will play their part to facilitate that.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the Assembly has not agreed a budget for next year, and organisations that rely on government aid are sending out redundancy notices. Can he also clarify one point? I accept that he does not wish to contemplate failure or direct rule. However, there are only 14 days from the time the Assembly meets to the time there is another election call. In those circumstances, will he now take the opportunity clearly and unequivocally to rule out any prospect of any form of joint authority as a long-term solution should a failure occur after this election?

I thank my noble friend. As I said when I repeated the Statement last week, the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is clearly set out in the Belfast agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The UK Government will absolutely meet their commitment and respect fully the constitutional position that is set out in the agreement and in that Act.

The Good Friday agreement was a shining jewel in the turbulent history of Anglo-Irish relations. The idea that anything should happen that would jeopardise its success is no less than awesome. In the circumstances, would Her Majesty’s Government consider the possibility of using the good offices of some person, male or female, of international renown and independence to try to broker a peaceful solution in this context, something which has happened in the past with great success?

I thank the noble Lord. Clearly, we will look at all ideas and suggestions for finding a way through that, and I will certainly reflect on what he said.

My Lords, the Minister was right to remind us in the Statement that the situation in Northern Ireland now is unrecognisable compared with the past and that we have come a long way. I was reflecting on the fact that in 1979, the day after I was elected to another place, Airey Neave was murdered in the precincts of Parliament, and in the years that followed thousands of people died, thousands were injured and a huge amount of damage was done up and down the country. Yet, by contrast, speaking at Stormont just a few weeks ago, I was very impressed—notwithstanding some of the paralysis in the Assembly itself, to which my noble friend Lady O’Loan referred—by the high integrity of many Members of the Assembly as individuals. Surely, if all these gains that have been made are not to be squandered, it is right to do as the Minister said, and for all to show a great sense of statesmanship and to ensure that they can bring power-sharing back as a reality in Northern Ireland as soon as this election has been held.

I can only agree very much with what the noble Lord said. I hope that all the parties in Northern Ireland will heed what he said and move forward in that spirit.