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Northern Ireland: Political Developments

Volume 782: debated on Tuesday 28 March 2017


My Lords, with permission I shall 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:

“Since the Northern Ireland Assembly election on 2 March, I have been engaged in intensive talks with the political parties and the Irish Government, in line with the well-established three-stranded approach. There has been one clear purpose: to re-establish an inclusive, devolved Administration at Stormont in accordance with the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors.

Progress has been made on a number of issues. These include on a budget, a programme for government and ways of improving transparency and accountability.

We have seen further steps forward on agreeing a way to implement the Stormont House agreement legacy bodies to help provide better outcomes for victims and survivors of the Troubles. In addition, progress was made around how the parties might come together to represent Northern Ireland in our negotiations to leave the EU, which is so important in the context of Article 50 being triggered tomorrow. That said, it is also clear that significant gaps remain between the parties, particularly over issues surrounding culture and identity.

Throughout this process, the Government have been active in making positive proposals to try to bridge those gaps and help the parties to move things forward. In law, the period allowed to form an Executive from the date of the first sitting of the Assembly after an election is 14 days. That 14-day period expired at 4 pm yesterday with no agreement and therefore no Executive. This is a source of deep disappointment and regret to me and I know there is widespread dismay across the country. From all my extensive engagement across Northern Ireland, with business, civil society and members of the public, I am in no doubt that inclusive, devolved government is what the overwhelming majority of the people want to see: working for them, delivering on their priorities and continuing the positive progress we have seen in Northern Ireland over recent years, with devolved institutions up and running and serving the whole community.

Yet following the passing of yesterday’s legal deadline, Northern Ireland has no devolved Administration. This also means that other elements of the Belfast agreement, including the north/south bodies, cannot operate properly. The consequences of all of this are potentially extremely serious. The most immediate is the fact that we are rapidly approaching the point at which Northern Ireland will not have an agreed budget. From tomorrow, a civil servant—the Department of Finance Permanent Secretary—will exercise powers to allocate cash to Northern Ireland departments. This is an interim measure designed to ensure that services are maintained until such time as a budget is agreed. We are keeping in close contact with the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service on these matters and I understand that the Department of Finance will be setting out more details today. But let me be very clear: this situation is not sustainable and beyond a short period of time will have an impact on public services. What we are talking about here is the health service, schools, voluntary groups and services for the most vulnerable in society. This is not what people voted for on 2 March.

During the course of the past 24 hours I have spoken to the leaders of the five main Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government. I am encouraged that there remains a strong willingness to continue engaging in dialogue with a view to resolving outstanding issues and forming an Executive, but the window of opportunity is short. It is essential therefore that the intensity of discussions is stepped up with renewed intent and focus. To that end I will continue over coming days to work closely with the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government as appropriate. I will need to keep the situation under review, but if these talks are successful it would be my intention quickly to bring forward legislation after the Easter Recess to allow an Executive to be formed, avoiding a second Assembly election, for which I detect little public appetite.

I am also determined to take forward the legacy bodies in the Stormont House agreement in accordance with our manifesto commitments. I will be involving a range of interested parties, including the victims’ commissioner. However, in the absence of devolved government, it is ultimately for the United Kingdom Government to provide for political stability and good governance. We do not want to see a return to direct rule. As our manifesto at the last election stated,

‘local policies and local services should be determined by locally elected politicians through locally accountable institutions’.

But should the talks fail in their objectives, the Government will have to consider all options. I therefore want to give the House notice that, following the Easter Recess, as a minimum, it would be my intention to bring forward legislation to set a regional rate to enable local councils to carry out their functions and to provide further assurance around the budget for Northern Ireland.

It is vital that devolved government, and all the institutions under successive agreements, is returned to Northern Ireland as soon as possible, and the Government’s unrelenting focus is on achieving that objective. Northern Ireland needs strong devolved government to deliver for teachers, doctors and nurses, businesses, industry and the wider community; to ensure that it plays a full role in the affairs of our United Kingdom while retaining its strong relationship with Ireland; and to continue the work of the past two decades to build a stronger, peaceful and prosperous future for all. That needs to be the focus of everyone as we approach the crucial next few days and weeks. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. In keeping with past tradition and practice of a consensus between all the parties regarding Northern Ireland, he and I have a strong relationship which is invaluable in this situation. Bearing in mind that close relationship, I know it will be a great disappointment to him that he must stand before this House again today to inform us that the talks to re-establish an inclusive, devolved Administration at Stormont have not been successful.

On 2 March, the people of Northern Ireland turned out to vote for their representation and for a devolved Assembly that will serve the needs of the whole community. If anyone has any doubt about the expectations, hopes and aspirations of the whole of the people of Northern Ireland, they may find it useful to speak to my noble friend Lady Blood, who is well tuned into opinion. A number of noble Lords throughout this House, especially those from Northern Ireland, will be able to testify to that need of the whole community. We need all the political parties in Northern Ireland collectively to live up to those expectations.

Communities and public services in Northern Ireland are suffering the day-to-day realities of this impasse. The Minister made mention of the health service—a service which is struggling with waiting lists while waiting for political leadership to be back in place. We thank the Minister for notice of the interim measures in place to allocate resources to Northern Ireland departments. We agree with his own statement that this is not sustainable.

I would like to ask the Minister about the talks moving forward. What fresh initiatives will be employed to ensure that the next round of talks are dynamic and make progress? We must ask: what will be different about these talks? Can we encourage, in the strongest possible terms, the importance of prime ministerial involvement in this process? History shows us how important this can be. I am aware of the answer the Secretary of State gave to my honourable friend the Member of Parliament for Blaydon in the other place, that the Prime Minister is involved and is conducting business through the Secretary of State. This is absolutely no reflection on the hard-working attitude of the Secretary of State, but does the Minister agree that we need greater leadership to be shown in the weeks ahead? Is he able to tell us what plans the Government have to ensure that the Prime Minister is even more actively engaged in the process?

We must also ensure high-level, direct engagement from the Irish Government in their role as a guarantor of the Good Friday agreement. Can the Minister update the House on the continuing intervention that the Irish Government have had, and will have, in the process? What options have the Government looked at in dealing with the specific issue of the renewable heat incentive scheme? Has the Secretary of State looked at the financial burden that the scheme placed on the people of Northern Ireland, and are there any options for how this may be more appropriately dealt with?

We in this House are under no illusion that this is easy. But this does not stop us—or, more importantly, the people of Northern Ireland—having high expectations of what must be achieved. We need all engaged parties, including the UK Government and the Irish Government, to ask not “What do we want?” but “What can we give to this process moving forward?”.

My Lords, I, too, will start by thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement to your Lordships’ House this afternoon. I will also say that it is with a very deep sense of regret—despite the very genuine efforts by some—that we have reached this impasse.

Let us be clear: the consequences for Northern Ireland of the failure of the political parties to reach agreement to establish an Executive are very serious. We are days away from the end of the financial year, and yet—as has been said—there is no budget. There has been no vote to set next year’s regional rates. There is no programme of government. This will lead to increased uncertainty for key public services in Northern Ireland such as health and education, and in the voluntary and community sectors.

It is particularly to be regretted that the ordinary people of Northern Ireland find themselves without a voice through an Executive at Stormont at such a critical time. With the triggering of Article 50 tomorrow, this is the very time when the particular needs of Northern Ireland deserve to be clearly heard. There are very real and as yet unresolved concerns for Northern Ireland, not least about how to maintain the open border in the context of the UK leaving the customs union. Can the Minister say what mechanisms the Government intend to put in place to ensure that the views of all political parties in Northern Ireland are heard during the Brexit negotiations? Does he agree that the joint ministerial committee will have a greater role to play in the context of Brexit, and that a more balanced representation of MLAs is needed to reflect the views of Northern Ireland?

Does the Minister further agree that, in the event of the current impasse continuing, a mechanism needs to be found to keep Assembly Members in place and to engage them and their party leaders in discussions on Brexit and other issues? Will he confirm that any such mechanism would require primary legislation?

Given that the RHI scandal was one of the immediate causes of the current crisis, will the Minister confirm that it is his understanding that the inquiry chaired by Judge Coghlin could take as long as six months to complete? Is he confident that Judge Coghlin has the necessary resources to enable a rapid conclusion to the inquiry? However, it is clear that there are deeper problems than the specific issues surrounding RHI. It will therefore be necessary to do things differently in order to secure a deal and to move forwards.

We on these Benches believe that there is no alternative to devolution, but that to achieve agreement will require a renewed commitment on the part of all participants to the talks. We believe that all parties now need to take stock of their position and come back to the negotiating table in a frame of mind to reach an agreement. Does the Minster agree that it is necessary to have a renewed sense of momentum, with clear leadership and full engagement by all political parties? What concrete action are the Government taking to provide the necessary leadership at the highest level at this time?

As former President Bill Clinton said last week, making peace work is an “endless process”. It requires compromise, a cool head, leadership and a desire to put the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland ahead of narrow political advantage. We sincerely hope that such an attitude will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

First, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. I agree with many of the sentiments they expressed. I think that the whole House will agree that the people we should have in the forefront of our mind today are the people of Northern Ireland. In the recent Assembly elections they voted overwhelmingly for strong, stable and inclusive devolved government, and it will be a matter of great disappointment to them—as it is to the Government—that the parties have been unable to reach agreement within the statutory period to enable an Executive to be formed.

This has real and practical implications. From tomorrow, a civil servant rather than elected representatives will be allocating cash for public services. This is not sustainable beyond the short term. Northern Ireland wants and needs effective, devolved government delivering on an agreed set of priorities and providing strong public services for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Turning in particular to the process going forward and who is involved in it, I say clearly that the UK Government take their responsibilities very seriously. However, it is important to say that the Northern Ireland parties also need to take their responsibilities seriously, to provide leadership and solutions to the current issues. My right honourable friend the Northern Ireland Secretary has been actively involved in supporting and facilitating the discussions between the parties over the last few weeks, and making proposals to bridge the gaps. As he said in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister has been fully engaged. She has held a number of conversations with the Taoiseach and will remain fully engaged as we go forward. However, it is worth noting that high-level interventions have not always worked in the past, as the early 2000s showed, and the circumstances today are very different, with 10 years of unbroken devolved government behind us. But of course we accept that this is a window of opportunity, and the discussions need to be intensified and inclusive. The Secretary of State will be discussing in the coming hours and days with the parties and the Irish Government the process for taking matters forward. We are working closely with the Irish Government and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan in accordance with the three-stranded approach.

On some of the other issues, clearly Brexit is a hugely important matter, and it is absolutely vital that the interests and priorities of Northern Ireland are reflected as we prepare for the negotiations to come. That is of course why we need to get a fully functioning Executive up and running as quickly as we can. Of course, the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Office will continue to engage with stakeholders right across Northern Ireland and to represent those interests. However, it would be much more effective if the Executive were in place. There has been progress with the parties in the discussions we have just had in establishing how they can come together to represent the interests of Northern Ireland going forward.

On the RHI inquiry, I think everybody wants to see a rapid reporting of that. Clearly, the procedures are a matter for the inquiry itself, but we want the facts on this issue as quickly as we can.

My Lords, as one of those involved in the Belfast agreement, I am delighted at the Statement and the Government’s determination to try to help get devolution restored to Northern Ireland. However, the Statement says:

“But should the talks fail in their objectives, the Government will have to consider all options”.

Is direct rule an option, and is joint rule of Northern Ireland not an option?

Our focus is on this period ahead—the window of opportunity the Secretary of State talked about—and I do not want to speculate about alternatives. Clearly, if we do not get agreement within this limited period, we need to consider all the options. However, it is fair to say that nobody wants to see a return to direct rule, which is why we need to intensify the discussions over the coming days and weeks.

My Lords, in reading the Statement, a couple of things worried me. First, we are told in the Statement that we are rapidly approaching a point where there is no real budget. The civil servants will be able to allocate funds for a very short period, but that is not sustainable. I worry about that, because that is the realm of life I live in. While I agree that the Irish language legacy issues are very important, they are not what makes the world go round, but the talks have figured mostly on those things. That worries me greatly, because I see work all around me coming to a halt because of the budget. Can the Minister say whether all the parties have been at a round table, and if not, why not? Are some elected representatives more important than others? With regard to the future of Northern Ireland, I do not consider that to be the case. The Minister talked about going on to future talks. What will be different about the next set of talks?

There has been progress in the talks over the last period. Progress has been made on setting a budget, implementing a programme for government and improving transparency and accountability, and these have been part of the round-table talks that have been convened. But clearly, as we go forward, we need to step up the intensity and inclusivity of the discussions, and that is what the Secretary of State will be working towards over the coming days and hours.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Kilclooney asked the Minister about joint rule but he did not comment on it in his reply. Will he now rule that out firmly?

I have been asked that question in this House before and I will give the same reply that I gave then. We are committed to the Belfast agreement and the principle of consent. Northern Ireland remains a full part of the UK and joint authority would be incompatible with that principle of consent.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned in the Statement public services, the community and the voluntary sector. What is his assessment of the uncertainty that the present situation places on those vital services, which are often accessed by the most vulnerable in our Northern Irish society?

The funding of these voluntary bodies and the public services is absolutely at the heart of why we need to make quick progress and why this process cannot go on indefinitely. Measures are in place that allow the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance to allocate cash, but political choices need to be made and that is why we require a fully functioning Executive to be in place.

My Lords, I support the Secretary of State in avoiding—almost at all costs—direct rule, because it would be a massive and possibly irreversible setback. Equally, I support there being no second election, because everybody agrees that that would solve absolutely nothing. In common with my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, who is unable to be here this afternoon, I remain puzzled as to why there has been no direct prime ministerial involvement—a point raised by my noble friend Lord McAvoy. The Minister hinted that the times are very different. They may be in one sense but in another they are not. The truth is that at times in the past the Prime Minister’s direct involvement, calling a summit at Hillsborough Castle or wherever it may be together with the Taoiseach, has been crucial in breaking the gridlock and bringing parties together, enabling them to find a solution they were not able to find on their own. I put that again to the Minister. The Prime Minister may be busy on other things such as Brexit but I suggest that there is nothing more important on her agenda than keeping the peace process in Northern Ireland moving forward. If it stalled and in any sense went into reverse, that could be very dangerous.

First, I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of maintaining the forward momentum of the peace process. As the Statement says, and as the Secretary of State said in the House of Commons, we do not detect any appetite for a second election—the issues would remain to be resolved and it would merely prolong a period of uncertainty and disruption. On the involvement of the Prime Minister, as I have already said, she is actively involved and engaged, dealing directly with the Taoiseach. She and the Taoiseach have mandated my right honourable friend the Northern Ireland Secretary and the Irish Foreign Minister to take forward supporting and facilitating the discussions with the parties. That will happen over the coming hours and days as we seek a resolution to these issues.

My Lords, I want to emphasise the importance of both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach being seen to be working together with the parties. The symbolism of that, as well as the practicality, is extremely important. I put to the Minister again the question that my noble friend Lady Suttie put. In the preparations for whatever outcome there is post-Easter, will the noble Lord and his colleagues at the Northern Ireland Office consider the possibility of the Assembly continuing even if the Executive Ministers are not in place? In that way there would be an elected body with which Northern Ireland Office Ministers and other Ministers could consult, with Members duly elected and their leaders, particularly about the question of Brexit as well as that of general devolution.

As the Statement sets out, the focus and priority are seeking to get the Executive up and running. Of course, should that not succeed, we will look carefully at all the options as we go forward.

My Lords, I welcome the announcement by the Minister that he will be bringing forward legislation after Easter. I suggest that that legislation should be fairly comprehensive in providing for a number of scenarios. It might also be a good idea to do something unusual or a little different—the suggestion mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, is worth considering. The Minister might like to consider that the joint ministerial council is not a creature of statute and that it could operate with a slightly different membership than it has done hitherto.

I will certainly reflect on what my noble friend has said. As is clear from the Statement, our focus is on getting the parties round the table to agree the outstanding issues so that we can form an Executive at the end of this window of opportunity. That must be the focus of our efforts at present.

My Lords, one of the few positive elements that the Minister was able to give us this afternoon was his reference to progress on accountability and transparency in government, the absence of which played a role in the generation of the scandal that has been so damaging to the institutions. Will he say a little more about what the parties have agreed, or may be in the process of agreeing, to enhance the accountability and transparency of the work of the Executive should they return, as we all hope that they will?

As the discussions are ongoing I do not want to talk about what must necessarily be confidential discussions. However, I know of the noble Lord’s long-standing interest in this subject and would merely reiterate that there has been progress on these issues in the immediate preceding period.

My Lords, the Statement spoke about the parties coming together to deal with the Brexit situation. Is it, as a matter of fact, the position that the people of Northern Ireland still have the statutory right to organise a referendum on their constitutional position, unlike Scotland which does not have that right unless it is granted? Is that now the legal position? I declare an interest as a Minister who took the original Northern Ireland referendum Bill through the House of Commons in 1972.

Under the Belfast agreement, arrangements are set out for the circumstances in which a border poll could be held. However, the Secretary of State has made it clear that the conditions for such a poll are not currently satisfied.

My Lords, will the Minister remind us how long the Secretary of State has to go on negotiating, as is highly desirable? Is there a point at which he is obliged to bring that to a halt and go for one of the other options?

The Secretary of State has made it clear that there is a period between now and Easter—when obviously the House of Commons will be in recess. What determines the timescale is the very clear statement that, if we can get agreement, when the House returns legislation can then be introduced, as set out in the Statement.

The Statement was most regrettable and unfortunate but not surprising. It may be useful for the House to know that at no point during the three-week period of negotiations were all parties invited to the table at the same time—not a single meeting of all the parties took place. As far as agreements are concerned, there are no agreements because nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. There has certainly been some progress, but not enough. Will the Minister keep an open mind when it comes to the steps that may have to be taken at the end of this period, whatever that period is—probably the end of April? The Government must use their imagination to ensure that the institutions survive with the north-south and east-west bodies that are attached to them, which is particularly significant in terms of the implications for Brexit and our relationship with the Irish Republic at this difficult time. Will the Government keep an open mind and look at examples of things that could be opened up to make sure that our number one priority is the maintenance of the institutions?

I say to my noble friend that, as the Statement said, should the talks fail in their objectives, the Government will have to consider all options. It would be right to keep an open mind at this point on those.

Who is taking the day-to-day decisions that would have been taken by Ministers? They are not all long term: many of them are day to day. It must self-evidently be civil servants, who are not elected and not accountable. They cannot be accountable to the Assembly and that is a mistake. That is not in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. My experience is limited to one year and that was 10 years ago, but direct rule is not a threat to some people in Northern Ireland. I drew the distinct impression at the time I was there, just for a year with my noble friend, that many people were quite happy with direct rule because it locked Northern Ireland into the UK in a very solid way. If we were to go back to direct rule, the chances are, as my noble friend said, we would never get out of it. It should not be contemplated and some other innovative way should be found. The fact is that someone is taking decisions over people’s lives at the moment, whether they are on planning, benefits or whatever, that Ministers would take on a day-to-day basis. Who is doing that?

I agree with the noble Lord. I have the highest regard for the Civil Service, but I am sure that we would all agree that elected politicians should be taking decisions about public services and public spending. With regard to direct rule, our experience in the past has been that, when the institutions are suspended and we move into a period of direct rule, we have not come out of that period quickly. We have seen huge progress made in Northern Ireland with 10 years of unbroken devolved government, and that is why the people of Northern Ireland voted so overwhelmingly in the last election to see those strong and inclusive devolved institutions continue.

My Lords, there seems to be no appetite for direct rule. There is no appetite for an Assembly under the current terms, and there is no appetite for the parties to get together around a table. So in those circumstances, is two weeks long enough or do we need to go well beyond Easter in terms of negotiations before we move to direct rule? I must contradict the noble Lord, from the Cross Benches—that is not a good idea.

We have been able to create this window of opportunity, but it is only a window. This cannot drag on indefinitely, for the reasons that I have said. Decisions need to be taken about the budget and the allocation of the budget. As the Statement says, there is a need to set a regional rate and that binds the time period in which we are operating.

My Lords, while I accept up to a point what my noble friend has said, having seen it at first hand, can I stress that a prime ministerial presence in Belfast can be of enormous importance in bringing the parties together? I was shocked by what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said about the parties not having been brought together. Could not the Prime Minister be urged to invite all the relevant parties to Hillsborough? If we do not get this right, it could be a disaster for the union.

I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said. It is a matter of fact that there have been round-table discussions on issues like the Programme for Government and budget setting which were chaired by the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. As regards the process going forward, that is something which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is actively exploring with the parties and no doubt he will make further statements on that.

My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm that if no acceptable compromise is reached over the next few weeks and if the situation seems to be such that we are spiralling towards direct rule, would Her Majesty’s Government, in conjunction with the other interested parties, consider inviting a statesman of international renown such as Senator George Mitchell or indeed former President Bill Clinton to intercede in the hope that this perilous impasse can be avoided?

I do not want to speculate on what might happen afterwards. Our focus is on the talks that we want to hold in the hours and days ahead.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement but I have to say that it is extremely disappointing that an Executive in Northern Ireland has not been formed so that eventually we could have a strong and stable government. We see former Secretaries of State here in this House. These are complex issues and they have been challenging parties in Northern Ireland for about 20 years. Sometimes there is a belief among Peers that these issues have been around for only the past five or 10 years. That is not the case, they go back 20 years. However, there is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to get involved. I know that she has been actively involved behind the scenes, but I think that her presence in Northern Ireland at this time would help the process. The Prime Minister had agreed to visit the other regions of the United Kingdom before she triggers Article 50, so I would ask the Minister whether the Prime Minister still intends to come to Northern Ireland before doing so. I think that such a visit could help the process. Her presence in Northern Ireland would do that.

I do not want to repeat what I have said already about the Prime Minister’s involvement and I am afraid that I am not privy to her forward diary, so I cannot answer the noble Lord’s question directly.