My Lords, following the resignation of Martin McGuinness last week, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has proposed a date for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 2 March in accordance with his responsibilities under relevant legislation. As the Secretary of State made clear in Parliament yesterday, Northern Ireland needs strong and stable devolved government to continue implementing the Belfast agreement and its successors and to respond to the opportunities and challenges ahead.
My Lords, this is a grave moment for part of our country—our precious United Kingdom, as the Prime Minister described it yesterday. The people of Northern Ireland must surely be at the forefront of our thoughts on all sides, in both Houses of Parliament, at this time. Will the Government confirm that it is within the framework of the union, and that alone, that the rebuilding of political stability in Northern Ireland will take place? Will this Conservative and Unionist Government now give a clear commitment that the Irish Republic, a close and respected neighbour, will not be given an enhanced role in Ulster’s affairs, and there will be no moves whatever towards joint authority over Northern Ireland?
My Lords, first, I take this opportunity to wish John Hume a happy 80th birthday today. As the House will know, he, along with my noble friend Lord Trimble. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the 1998 Belfast agreement. My noble friend Lord Lexden raises an important point. I can confirm that the Government remain fully committed to the Belfast agreement, including the principle of consent governing Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. It is on that basis that Northern Ireland is, and remains, a full part of the United Kingdom. Clearly, any form of joint authority would be incompatible with the consent principle. The Government’s priority remains to work intensively to ensure that, after the Assembly elections, strong and stable devolved government is re-established in Northern Ireland.
Why is it that the Government give the distinct impression of being hands-off rather than hands-on during this escalating crisis? Clearly, the parties, since their relations have deteriorated so terribly, are not going to sort this out on their own, even after an election. It is vital that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister convene meetings—whether summits or other gatherings—to bring the parties together, and that they do so with the Taoiseach as well. Regardless of joint sovereignty arguments, which are irrelevant in this, the Irish Government are very influential, must be brought in, and are a partner in the Good Friday agreement.
I do not accept the premise of the noble Lord’s question. Both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have been very actively engaged in talking to the Taoiseach and the parties in Northern Ireland. We will continue to leave no stone unturned to ensure that we are in the best possible position after the election to re-establish a fully functioning Executive.
The Minister will be aware that just before this major crisis broke, the Northern Ireland Office issued a document on the issue of the donations to political parties, which are private and secret matters in Northern Ireland, for very good historic reasons. It is now calling for a consultation, giving the impression that it wants to review policy in this area. Does the Minister agree that, in fact, it is the suspicions in and around donations related to this great financial scandal which complicate the matter? Will the Northern Ireland Office carry on this work despite the fact that there are many other grave matters at this time?
I agree very much with the noble Lord that this is an important matter. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wrote recently to all the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek their views on it by 31 January, so that we are in a position to move forward with this once we have had the election.
My Lords, it is a well-known fact that it can never be too early to start discussions regarding problems and issues in Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding the fact that an election will now take place, can the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is willing to consult with all political parties in Northern Ireland during the election process, so as to pave the way, hopefully, for that Assembly to operate, once it is elected?
I do think that it is important to keep open the lines of communication with the parties throughout the election period for precisely the reason that the noble Lord gives. We need to have an open dialogue so that we are in the best possible position to re-establish a strong and stable devolved Government after the poll in a few weeks’ time.
My Lords, will this hiatus allow the Government to take forward in any way the legacy package of the Stormont House agreement? Former police officers went out to serve in Northern Ireland to protect both sides of the community and are being prosecuted disproportionately compared to the terrorists whom they were protecting the community from.
I very much agree with my noble friend. The current situation is unsatisfactory and it remains a priority for the Government to build a consensus on this issue and to find a way forward. The Stormont House agreement provides a framework for reform and the new institutions and will, we believe, provide a fairer, more balanced and proportionate way forward.