Second Reading (and remaining stages)
My Lords, the context for this short and simple Bill is very clear. Northern Ireland has enjoyed the longest unbroken period of devolved government since the old Stormont Parliament was dissolved in 1972. It is now nearly 10 years since full power was restored to the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland following a prolonged period of suspension. In these years Northern Ireland has taken important and positive steps forward. Northern Ireland is today a more peaceful and prosperous place than it was. Of course, there are still too many acts of wanton violence. Paramilitary activity and terrorism have not yet been eradicated from the streets of Northern Ireland, as we saw all too clearly with the placing of a significant bomb over the weekend by dissident republican terrorists next to a primary school in north Belfast. This is an outrage, putting innocent lives at risk. I pay tribute to the work of the police and other emergency services who work so hard to keep us all safe.
It is clear also that significant economic and social challenges remain to be overcome, so we are all united in this House and beyond in our desire to see the momentum of the peace process maintained. Momentum is what the people of Northern Ireland want their political leaders to deliver, whether here at Westminster or in Stormont. The continuation of strong and stable devolved government is what people voted for in large numbers in the recent Assembly elections. It is what they expect. It is what they deserve. We must not let them down, so protecting the interests of the people of Northern Ireland is at the heart of this simple, three-clause Bill—a Bill designed to ensure that every opportunity is given for an Executive to be formed so that the ratepayers of Northern Ireland do not suffer greater difficulty in managing their bills or that a gap does not open up in funding for essential public services.
It is ultimately the UK Government who have responsibility for maintaining political stability in Northern Ireland, and the Government take that responsibility very seriously. My right honourable friend the Northern Ireland Secretary has updated Parliament regularly in recent weeks. In doing so, he set out his intention to bring forward legislation with two aims in mind: to provide the legal basis for an Executive to form and to set a regional rate to enable that important source of revenue to be collected. In the final full week of this Parliament, the time is right to deal with both those matters, providing greater certainty for the people of Northern Ireland and creating the opportunity for the parties to come together to secure the resumption of devolved government. The way in which this Bill deals with the latter issue takes into account the reality of the forthcoming general election.
I know that the House understands very well the background leading up to today’s Bill. The collapse of the previous Executive in January placed a duty on the Northern Ireland Secretary to set a date for a further election. He did so in January, with the election held on 2 March. Since then, the Secretary of State has been engaged in talks with the political parties and, as appropriate, the Irish Government, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach. These talks have had one clear purpose: to re-establish an inclusive devolved Administration in line with the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors.
When the new Assembly sat for the first time on 13 March, it set in train a 14-day deadline under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for an Executive to be formed. That deadline, however, came and went on 27 March. The failure to form an Executive within the prescribed period meant that my right honourable friend was placed under a further duty to set a date for another election. At that point, it was no longer possible for an Executive to form without either another election or new legislation specifically enabling Ministers to be appointed to an Executive.
With talks under way and a realistic prospect of an agreement being reached, to have called another Assembly election would not have been appropriate—a view widely shared, not least by many in this House. Therefore, following consultation with the parties and the Irish Government, the Secretary of State convened a further phase of intensive round tables in the 10 days before Easter.
Progress was made on several fronts during that phase on the formation of an Executive, on the budget and on the programme for government. There was progress too in terms of legacy. Constructive discussions took place with all the parties on the detail of the legacy institutions set out in the Stormont House agreement and the need to reform legacy inquests. As my right honourable friend said on Monday in the other place:
“Although no one will underestimate the challenge of addressing the legacy of the past, the proposals are now sufficiently developed that the next step should be to publish them for consultation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/4/17; col. 918.]
In that way, we can listen to the views of victims and survivors and all those who will be most affected by the proposed new institutions.
However, looking at the talks as a whole, it was clear that outstanding issues remained to be resolved and that a period of reflection was necessary to give the impetus for discussions to reach a successful conclusion. As a result, the talks were paused over Easter and, since then, meetings have continued between the parties.
The Government are clear that the restoration of devolved government remains achievable and the absolute priority. However, that will require more time and more focused engagement by the parties on the critical issues that remain, building on the discussions over the course of the past eight weeks. The Government’s hope, and wish, is that the parties can use this period to build on the progress made so far. This is particularly important given that, with an election on 8 June, if a deal is not reached now, the people of Northern Ireland will be faced with nearly six months without an Executive.
The Bill before this House today would provide the space, and the opportunity, for the parties to do just that. The Government consider this to be the most practical way forward for the people of Northern Ireland in the current circumstances. It is an approach that recognises the current focus on the general election and provides the scope for the parties to continue discussions and to resolve outstanding issues, while providing time for an incoming Government to consider their options if a deal does not prove possible before the election. This gives the best possible opportunity for restoring a strong, stable and inclusive devolved Government. I take this opportunity to place on record my gratitude to the parties opposite for their constructive and positive engagement during the process leading up to this point, and for their support for the measures we are proposing today.
Moving to the substance of the Bill, as I have said, Clause 1 would remove the present legal barrier to an Executive being able to form to enable any deal reached to be implemented. It would retrospectively reset the 14-day clock in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which expired on 27 March, with a 108-day period, removing the present duty that the Northern Ireland Secretary is under to set a date for an election, with this arising again at 4 pm on Thursday 29 June. After that time, as now, an Executive would no longer be able to form. To be clear, this extension applies to the specific circumstances following the last Assembly elections and does not represent a more fundamental change to the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It will provide the space in the current circumstances for an Executive to form, making clear that the parties are not absolved of their responsibility to make progress.
Let me reiterate the point that if a deal was not already in place, it would provide a period for further talks in the new Parliament, allowing the parties to take stock and move forward. It would mean also that if a deal is not struck, there is a period for the new Government to properly consider the way forward. That is important. In the absence of a deal there will be significant decisions to be made in the new Parliament to provide political stability in Northern Ireland. None of us hopes to face that situation, and this Bill is intended to provide the framework to avoid that outcome. I hope, as I am sure the whole House does, that the parties will seize the opportunity, whether in the coming weeks or soon after, to deliver the Executive for which they have such a clear mandate to secure.
I turn now to Clause 2 on the regional rates. Two acute issues of financial uncertainty are caused by the lack of an Executive. The first is the absence of a 2017-18 regional rate, which represents more than 5% of the total revenue available to the Northern Ireland Executive. Normally this would have been set by the Department of Finance earlier this year via an affirmative rates order in the Assembly. This would have enabled bills to be issued in 10 instalments, giving certainty to ratepayers and allowing various payment reliefs to be applied. However, time has nearly run out for that course. If no rate is set in the next few days, there will be fewer bill instalments of higher amounts, and the longer it takes to set a rate, the worse that situation would become. The only outcome would be bad debt, lost revenue, uncertainty and hardship. Therefore, while we are clear that this is a devolved matter, we are clear also that in the current circumstances only the UK Government can take action to secure the interests of individuals, businesses and indeed the Executive.
Clause 2 addresses this issue by setting a 2017-18 regional rate in Northern Ireland. It does so by setting “pence per pound” rates for both domestic and non-domestic properties. These rates represent a 1.6% inflationary increase, the same approach as was taken by the Executive in setting a rate the year before. As we make clear in Clause 2(4) and (5), it would not cut across the continuing right of the Executive to set a rate by order in the usual way. This would be the most limited step available to us, taken at a point beyond which we cannot delay.
The second financial matter is the lack of a 2017-18 budget. Its absence has meant that since the beginning of this month, civil servants alone have been in charge of allocating cash, which is by no means a solution for the longer term. Before Easter, therefore, the Secretary of State made it clear that he would provide further assurance in this regard if an Executive were not in place, reflecting the UK Government’s ultimate responsibility for political stability in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has now provided that assurance in the other place.
First, he has indicated that the Government would be prepared, as a last resort, to pass an appropriation Act in the next Session to provide legislative authority for the expenditure of Northern Ireland departments. Secondly, the Secretary of State has published a Written Ministerial Statement, following the advice of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, setting out indicative departmental allocations. These reflect the budget priorities and decisions of the previous Executive and provide a basis for allocations in the absence of an Executive. These totals would not constrain the future freedom of an incoming Executive to amend expenditure allocations.
These are not steps any Government would take lightly. However, they reflect the duty Parliament owes to the people of Northern Ireland and the Government’s ultimate responsibility, as I say, for political stability and good governance. By passing this Bill we can provide the scope and space for a deal to be done by the parties. The Government will continue to work intensively to secure that outcome in the critical weeks to come. That is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for and it is what businesses, community groups and individuals across Northern Ireland want to see. It is what this Bill seeks to deliver and I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his speech and for his recent Written Statement to keep the House updated on the situation in Northern Ireland. He has explained very clearly the intent behind the Bill and that is much appreciated. Before I start, I put on record our thanks to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the emergency services who were called out to deal with the appalling terrorist incident outside Holy Cross School in the Ardoyne on Sunday morning. It was an act that showed total disregard for the lives of children and the local community and actively targeted serving police officers. We pay tribute to the bravery and professionalism of the police and emergency service staff.
All noble Lords will agree that it is regrettable that this legislation has to be before us today. This is not where any of us wanted to be. Our priority, shared across the House, is the restoration of the inclusive, devolved Administration that the people of Northern Ireland voted for. Your Lordships’ House is familiar with the recent events which form the background to the Bill. We make it plain from these Benches that we will support the measures that the Government have brought forward in the Bill while negotiations on the formation of an Executive are ongoing. As the Minister explained, the Bill makes provision to extend the period for filling ministerial offices in the Northern Ireland Assembly, so that this remains an option throughout and immediately after the general election campaign. We accept and support this approach, which is measured and will give space for progress to be made and for an Executive to be formed.
The provisions to urgently set regional domestic and non-domestic rates for this financial year go some way to addressing, as the Minister has said, the acute financial uncertainty facing Northern Ireland. Businesses and communities in Northern Ireland need far greater financial security than this measure alone provides. It is imperative that negotiating parties reach agreement and form an Executive so that the elected Assembly can be returned to take urgent decisions and serve the people of Northern Ireland who elected it.
I have a small number of questions for the Minister, particularly with regard to the time that will be available for negotiations during the coming weeks. Is he able to tell the House what talks are scheduled to take place during the general election period? What continued support will current Ministers and government officials be able to provide to the negotiation process before a new Government are elected? What arrangements are in place so that talks can continue, as I am sure they have been going on until now, with the Irish Government? The Secretary of State made the welcome statement that constructive discussions have taken place on legacy issues—such an important base to move forward from. Is the Minister able to tell us more about what point the legacy proposals have reached? I think he said that they are ready to be put out for consultation. What preparations are being made and has a timescale been discussed for that consultation? The Troubles touched victims in every part and every community of Northern Ireland. It is the victims, their families and their loved ones who must have their voices heard as we pave the way for dealing with that legacy.
I do not need to remind your Lordships’ House of the range of issues that face Northern Ireland in the months to come. At a local level, communities need decisions and funding for key public services. Northern Ireland is also uniquely placed for discussions, under whichever Government is returned, for the UK’s future relationship with the European Union. As I have said, we lend our support to the interim provisions introduced in the Bill, but the situation we find ourselves in is not desirable and not sustainable.
It is not what the people of Northern Ireland voted for. We are dedicated to the return of an inclusive devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. We must not have a return to direct rule in any form, and we must be honest and vigilant in ensuring that we do not allow each step of this process to make it harder to go back to inclusive, devolved government. After the enormity of what has been achieved, not least through the efforts of many Members of your Lordships’ House, we have achieved far too much to move backwards now. We look to all negotiating parties to meet in the spirit of compromise and agreement, and to do their duty in returning a working Government to Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for being in touch with my noble friend Lord Alderdice and me about the Bill last week. I shall keep my remarks extremely brief as we consider the Bill a sensible and necessary approach to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and we hope to see its swift and unamended passage through your Lordships’ House today.
I begin by paying tribute to the police officers and those from the other emergency services who worked on Sunday to keep the whole community in north Belfast safe, following the discovery of a dissident republican bomb. Those who placed this bomb, not only in the heart of the community but outside the gates of a primary school, do not represent the vast majority of people in the area. Such actions have no place in a democratic society.
It is unfortunate that this election has been called without regard to the sensitive negotiations in Northern Ireland, and that, instead of working with the political parties to secure devolution so that Northern Ireland can have a strong voice in the Brexit negotiations, the Prime Minister has concentrated more on securing her own political future. Given that the general election has now been called, however, we believe that extending the period for forming an Executive in Northern Ireland to 29 June is necessary as further progress on the talks is unlikely during the election period.
We also recognise, as has been pointed out by the honourable Member for Foyle, Mark Durkan, in the other place, that the Government may not be in a position to give undertakings or commitments in the negotiations in Northern Ireland as we move into a period of purdah. So in reality it may not be possible to achieve a comprehensive agreement before the election. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether that is indeed the case.
The general election comes at a crucial time for Northern Ireland. The current vacuum is not sustainable; it is already doing damage to the Northern Irish economy and its public services, so we are also supportive of the second provision of the Bill, which sets the regional rates for domestic and non-domestic property in Northern Ireland for the current financial year. Will the Minister assure us that, in the short but critical three weeks between the election on 8 June and this revised deadline of 29 June, if the Prime Minister is returned to office, she will make securing a stable Executive in Northern Ireland one of her top priorities?
Perception is extremely important in politics. Does the Minister agree that clear leadership must be shown at the highest level of government to help secure the devolution settlement, including prime ministerial visits to Belfast? While we recognise that it is unlikely that much progress will be made in the forthcoming weeks, will the Minister also reassure us that he will continue to consult and work with all political parties in Northern Ireland and confirm that the political parties in Northern Ireland were consulted on, and are content with, the inflationary increase of 1.6% provided for in the Bill?
I give assurances from these Benches that we will not oppose either of the provisions before us in the Bill today. However, I urge the Minister not to let any progress deteriorate in the coming weeks, and ensure that talks in Northern Ireland are resumed as a matter of urgency following the election on 8 June.
My Lords, I should like to join other noble Lords in strongly supporting the Bill before us and I fully appreciate that its fast-tracking is unavoidable in the circumstances. I would also like to associate myself with the comments made by other speakers regarding the security services and the very difficult job that they have to do in Northern Ireland.
We all recognise that the achievement of consensus among Northern Ireland politicians is sometimes intrinsically difficult, but nevertheless we should be encouraged by the achievements of the devolved Administration in recent years and by the agreement reached in the Stormont House talks. In the circumstances, the irresponsible actions of Sinn Fein over the past few months are very regrettable and the decision of that party’s Deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness, to resign led inevitably to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive and the subsequent Northern Ireland Assembly elections. After the election, Sinn Fein again refused to nominate a Deputy First Minister and thereby again prevented the establishment of a devolved Administration. In contrast, the Democratic Unionist Party did not lay down any preconditions for the re-establishment of devolved government and continued to seek agreement among all parties on the relevant issues.
The Secretary of State, who has to be congratulated along with his team on the way they have conducted the negotiations under extremely difficult circumstances, remains positive regarding the progress of the talks and believes that there is the will and the commitment among the parties to find a way forward, and therefore the extension of the period for filling ministerial offices provided for in this Bill is very much to be welcomed. Can the Minister give an assurance that 29 June is the final cut-off date and will be the last deadline to be set? I feel that if this is made clear, it will focus the minds of the negotiators on reaching an agreement.
We must all hope that a successful conclusion to the talks will be arrived at by that date. Moreover, it is clear beyond doubt that unless the provisions of the Bill related to the setting of the regional rate are also passed into law as soon as possible, the administration of Northern Ireland will cease to function effectively.
In concluding, I should like to take a broader perspective on the future of Northern Ireland. The decisions which must be taken in the next few years on the subject of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union and on the constitutional status of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom are probably more important than any taken, certainly in my lifetime. Personally, I strongly favour the retention of a strong United Kingdom comprising England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and I fully support the decision of the people of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union as expressed in the recent referendum. It is essential that the representatives of Northern Ireland are fully consulted during these important discussions, but this will be possible only if the devolved institutions are in place. Can the Minister inform the House about what steps will be taken to ensure that Northern Ireland interests are fully represented in the unfortunate event that the talks fail?
I have listened to the Minister and I understand that the proposals dealing with the legacy of our troubled past are on the table. I am pleased that he has informed the House that the Government are willing to publish them so that wider consultation can take place in the next few weeks.
We must all hope earnestly that the talks will reach a successful conclusion before 29 June so that a functioning Executive can be established which will deliver peace and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland. I can assure the House that my party is totally committed to reaching out and securing a lasting agreement. The message coming from the Province right across the board is that people want devolution up and running, so I support the Bill.
My Lords, as has in effect been said, this Bill is necessary. Consequently, it will be supported and will proceed in this House. It also comes at the last minute. I understand why the Government have waited until the last minute before bringing forward these proposals, because they will want to proceed with the talks that have been going on as though that is the key thing where they want success. It is then natural to leave the Bill to the last minute before bringing forward necessary provisions if there has not been agreement.
We also have to consider what will be done in the future. When we look to that future we are dealing with a very significant anomaly where one party with less than a third of the seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly is in a position to collapse the Assembly, has done so and shows no sign of taking a different approach. I know the Government will hope that they can find an agreement between now and the new cut-off date in June, but the auguries are not good. We have to consider where we are.
I note that the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, wants the new deadline to be final—that is what I understood him to say. If it is to be final, the question is: what will happen when that comes if things have not succeeded? In that sense, to come to what the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, said, we do not want a return to direct rule—I agree with him on that—but if we have a final cut-off date in June, we do not have success and we do not have direct rule, what do we have? We have to give careful consideration to this.
The problem at present is the inability to form an Executive. Are an Executive absolutely necessary? There may be other ways to deal with this. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, for not having consulted him on what I am about to say—he would be in a position to give a very interesting response—because I look to what happened with the first phase of devolution in Wales, where there was a corporate Assembly without an Executive that functioned reasonably effectively. As I understand it, that operated for some six or seven years, then the Welsh Assembly wanted to move to having an Executive, but that shows what could be done in this situation.
If, come the cut-off date in June, we are in a position to bring forward a little bit of legislation that vested the administrative powers in a corporate Assembly, that Assembly could continue to function and it would be able to move to have an Executive the moment that the party that presently will not nominate for an Executive shows a willingness to do so. We would have an arrangement that could be flexible and would not prevent an Executive being formed at a later stage, but would mean that the Northern Ireland Assembly would continue, that there would not be direct rule and that the administration can be carried forward by the corporate Assembly.
That is a suggestion. There may be others, but while the Government will not want at this stage to make any formal consideration of plan B, thought needs to be given to this. This is a modest suggestion that I would like to put out there. It might help to make some parties a bit more amenable when they realise that there is a plan B. I am well aware of the attitude that Sinn Fein can take to deadlines when they are there: it seems to regard a deadline as an insult and wait until it breaks the deadline before it does anything. That is the way it used to operate in the past. Maybe it has learned something in the interval, but I would not want to count too much on that. I leave those thoughts for people to consider.
My Lords, at the outset of my comments, I, too, pay tribute to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for the work it has done and been called on to do in recent times. Of course, it should not have to do that. Unfortunately, there are those in our society who seem to think that the planting of a bomb at the gateway of a primary school is something to be proud of. It is a downright disgrace that such an incident should happen. I roundly condemn those who did that and I commend the police on their swift action and for preserving life. Too often in the past, their predecessors, the RUC, got simply nothing but criticism when they stood in the way of those who would destroy life. I pay tribute to the PSNI today.
In this debate today, I do not want to either overestimate or underestimate the situation that Northern Ireland finds itself in. There are those who seek to blame the Government here at Westminster, but I make it very clear that I attribute no blame whatever to this Government for the situation in Northern Ireland. The blame can be traced much closer to home and certainly not here in London. It must be said that, given the type and style of government that operates in Northern Ireland, it can be difficult and trying to provide smooth and progressive government. I hope that lessons will be learned from the latest experience. Regretfully, I am extremely doubtful that the form of government we have is sustainable in future. I would like to be proved wrong—and would be happy enough if I am—but I say that most sincerely.
The Bill before the House is, as has been stated, to set a regional rate for Northern Ireland for 2017-18 and allow a new Executive to be formed. It provides an extension of time to the period when an Executive can be formed. Of course, this should have been the function of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but the refusal of the Sinn Fein Finance Minister to bring forward a Budget forced the Government’s hand; hence the debate today and the situation we find ourselves in.
I welcome the Government’s decision. I and my colleagues will support it. My only criticism is that, slightly contrary to what we have heard, I think it should have happened sooner. Some would say that it is what Northern Ireland voted for: that is, for their own Government, to make their own decisions and to strike their own budgets and rates. That is, of course, correct. Some say that was voted for on 2 March and that is correct, too. However, it was also voted for in May 2015, but the democratic wish of the people was denied. Today, we are at a standstill. Sinn Fein apparently sees the merits of democracy only when it suits them and works for their agenda.
We all know that Sinn Fein do not like making difficult decisions. We were told that the election held on 2 March was because there were issues regarding the renewable heating initiative. Strange to relate, since 2 March we seldom if ever hear of RHI. It has somehow disappeared and is no longer an issue. Let me say very clearly: RHI was never the reason for the election, simply the excuse.
We are told that there is a lack of respect and this must be addressed. Of course, this is Sinn Fein speak. Where was the respect when Gerry Adams referred to unionists as “B—s”? I will not complete the word. He stated very clearly that equality was a means of breaking unionists. Well, 30 years of murder and mayhem, of bombing and destruction, did not achieve this, and I assure the House that the new tactics of Sinn Fein will not achieve it either. When Sinn Fein speak about respect, it has a very hollow ring to it.
Then we had the dreadful, insulting remarks of Martina Anderson, Sinn Fein Member of the European Parliament. When, referring to the Brexit vote—irrespective of the position you take on that—she screamed out where the Prime Minister could put her borders, it was the most disgraceful, disrespectful and insulting remark I think I have ever heard a politician come out with. To put it mildly, it was quite outrageous. Of course, we also had the recent appointment by Gerry Adams of Michelle O’Neill. She travelled to Coalisland to eulogise IRA murderers, and today has announced that she will be paying homage to the eight IRA terrorists who were intercepted by the security forces as they went on a mission to murder, bomb and destroy.
What does respect mean? It seems to mean different things to different people. My understanding of it seems somewhat different from that of those who tell us we do not show them respect.
We will give the Bill our full support. I think it is necessary, but it is most unfortunate that it has to be this way.
My Lords, like for many other Members, it is a matter of deep regret for me that this piece of legislation is before the House. We thought, perhaps naively, that the days when such legislation was required were over, but that is not the case and I have very little confidence that this is necessarily the last piece of legislation that we will see in the next few months.
A number of noble Lords have mentioned the actions of the PSNI at the weekend, but one should not be surprised. Whenever there is a political vacuum, these types of people will fill that vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum. As a former Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, knows what I mean. This is what they do. The incident at Holy Cross, however awful, is merely one of a series of similar incidents that perhaps noble Lords have not picked up on—successive attempts to kill members of the security forces or the prison service. This is not a new tactic. It has been ongoing for quite a long time. Not only should we pay tribute to the PSNI and what they have done, but I have to say that the co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Siochana is at one of the highest levels it has ever been. They are working very closely together and have managed to prevent a very substantial number of attacks. We must never forget that that level of co-operation is the one thing that is preventing further attacks being successful.
Turning to the Bill, as the Minister said in his opening remarks, it is the most minimalist position he can take. Noble Lords may or may not be aware that rates in Northern Ireland are still levied. We never had the council tax, which was perhaps a good thing. But one advantage with the rates is that you can collect them because properties do not tend to move overnight— although I am sure it is possible to find a way of doing that. The rates are divided into two parts: the district councils set a district council rate and Stormont sets a regional rate. They are roughly 50/50, but councils do not collect rates in Northern Ireland. It is done by an agency of the Department of Finance and they are already a month late. I suppose I am not the only person in the Room who will have to declare an interest, because there are those of us who are going to have to pay them.
The delay has already cost a lot of money, as we had to mail every property in Northern Ireland to tell them that their rates were not going to be collected on time, and so forth. So the cash flow that local councils depend upon—bearing in mind that they still raise in excess of 80% of their money out of the rates—will, I suspect, already have been interrupted. Whether that will be dealt with by borrowing or using reserves, it will be balanced out in due course. The point is that this leads to gross inefficiency in budgeting and planning, and has already added costs. If things come out late then people get into trouble or debt and their whole planning goes out of the window, so we need to take care. There is no alternative to what the Government are proposing in the Bill.
Similarly, when we turn to the clause dealing with ministerial appointments, had the Bill not been brought forward I have no doubt that somebody could have judicially reviewed the Secretary of State because, by the far side of the general election, the argument might be that his not calling a general election there within a specified time was not reasonable. We therefore had to proceed with this legislation to ensure that the Secretary of State is protected from that and that another opportunity is created for the formation of an Executive. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, put forward an alternative idea should that not be possible. Without going into the merits or demerits of that proposal, I ask the Minister to assure the House that, should he find himself in difficulty at the end of June, he and his colleagues, including his right honourable friend in the other place, will look flexibly and creatively at alternatives to direct rule and a collapse of the institutions.
Having been down the Stormont steps a few times myself, I can assure your Lordships that it is much easier to get down them than to get back up them again. We must not forget that we have North-South institutions, some of which I played some part in creating, along with the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and others. They obviously lack direction because that direction has to come from the Administration in the Republic and the Executive in Northern Ireland, and of course one half of that equation is missing. So all those bodies spending taxpayers’ money are left rudderless and without proper direction. This can be carried forward for quite some time, and those of your Lordships who have been in situations such as ministerial positions will know that you can do this only for so long, but we have to remember that Stormont has been out to lunch since before Christmas and we are now talking about the end of June. Who knows whether that will be the finish of it?
Mention has been made of the budget. There should be a properly fixed budget. I would hope that the departments would be looking at their budgets for 2018-19 and beyond now, but they do not even have a properly agreed budget for this year, other than the fact that a civil servant has taken a decision under the rules. The Secretary of State may issue a statement, but of course that statement has no legal power. It merely raises the issue, but the civil servant is setting the rates—the departmental budgets.
We know that Northern Ireland has the longest waiting lists in the health service and huge problems over education. We fought for the ability to impose our own rate of corporation tax and were ultimately granted the ability to do so, but that has gone down the drain now. It was supposed to come in in April next year, but there is no possibility of that happening now, so there is another lost opportunity.
In the last Stormont Administration, there was a high level of incompetence. We have to be honest about that and about other things. It was not a good Administration. It stayed, it was there, it served that purpose and that was good, but it was not a good Administration.
Mention was made of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. The total contribution so far from Stormont to Whitehall has been a two-page letter last August, which set out the very obvious, but we have not had any meaningful input. I join other noble Lords in asking the Minister, as I asked his colleague from the Department for Exiting the European Union, how, precisely, Northern Ireland’s views are going to be put forward. We have the most critical and difficult situation developing with the border and we are not even at the races. We are making no input of any submission. Stormont is silent. There has been one letter in the past nine months. That is most unfortunate.
All we are doing is showing contempt for ordinary people who are on long waiting lists. We have hundreds of people on protective notice in the voluntary and community sector because they do not know whether the money is going to be coming in or not.
This brings me back to a point I have made in this Chamber on a number of occasions about parliamentary oversight of the devolved institutions. There is none. That is a major mistake. We have to be continuously watching. Vast amounts of taxpayers’ money is going not only to Northern Ireland but to Scotland and Wales. The heating scandal that was ostensibly the issue that brought the Executive to their knees has been mentioned. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, that it was a passing vehicle that was used, not the main cause of the Sinn Fein decision, but the scandal is still there, the bills are still to be paid, it should never have happened, and nobody is looking at that. We are again talking about huge sums of money. I totally oppose the concept of devolve and forget. It is a rotten policy. It does not apply only to Northern Ireland. It is a mistake. There must be a level of parliamentary oversight, particularly when the vast amount of money spent by these Administrations is coming from here. I will leave that for another day. I do not expect the Minister to respond on that, but I hope he will clearly indicate that he will keep his options open.
As to Mr Adams and Sinn Fein, whatever people have to say about Martin McGuinness, and there is lots that people could say about him, he was more involved in the institutions in Stormont and more committed to them. I do not think Mr Adams is in the same position. The negotiations after the election are going to be extremely difficult, but I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will be prepared to keep an open mind and look at creative options because to close the place down and abandon the institutions with all the problems that arise is the worst option. I hope it is not necessary to restore direct rule. If it is, we will have to deal with it, but I sincerely hope that we can avoid it, and that may require a lot of creative thinking.
My Lords, I have worked closely and most enjoyably with my noble friend Lord Empey throughout this Parliament, and indeed for years before, and it is a great pleasure to follow a speech into which he injected so much of his characteristic wisdom and humour.
The Bill is clearly essential and the Government deserve the full support of the House for it. The rates in Northern Ireland must be set and paid in the usual way, so that vital local services can continue to be provided and those who deliver them can continue to receive their pay. It is right, too, that the time available for talks on the formation of the new devolved Executive should be extended. The Government tell us that progress has been made—that being so, they must persist in their endeavours.
Their persistence commands the deepest admiration. It would be interesting to tot up the total number of hours that have been spent in recent years in talks, first to produce the Stormont House agreement in 2014, then to try and arrange for its implementation in 2015 and now, in 2017, to restore devolution itself to life in this wonderful Province—an integral part of our country. How do they fill the time during all these long hours of talks? The sheer extent of the talking should at least demonstrate unequivocally to everyone at home and abroad that absolutely nothing is being left undone in these valiant efforts to restore power-sharing between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. They are perhaps the most unlikely partners in government in this country that the wit of man could contrive, given that their fundamental constitutional objectives are diametrically opposed.
Everyone wants devolution to be restored successfully in Ulster. How reassuring it would be if the two parties on which success wholly depends could find it possible to issue some form of joint statement pledging themselves to work together constructively in the years between one Assembly election and the next, for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of their conflicting constitutional objectives. Such a statement, and an agreed programme of work founded on it, would provide a really firm basis for the stable, enduring and fruitful power-sharing for which so many have yearned for so long. Without such some such joint approach, will not devolution, if and when it is restored, be conducted once again largely through separate departmental fiefdoms without serious regard to collective responsibility, further entrenching the deep party—and thus communal—divide in this part of our country? How could such a state of affairs serve the true interests of our fellow country men and women in Northern Ireland?
In the circumstances that we confront today, we may very well need to give the most careful consideration to the ideas put before us this afternoon by my noble friend Lord Trimble and the noble Lord, Lord Empey. The Conservative and Unionist manifesto at the election two years ago stated:
“The Conservative Party is the party of the Union—and we will always do our utmost to keep our family of nations together”.
In its manifesto specifically for the elections in Northern Ireland, the party emphasised:
“We will never be neutral in expressing our support for the Union”.
Today, those commitments are more important than ever before.
My Lords, first, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, as I missed the first minute of his statement. I wish also to associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and other noble Lords regarding the actions of the PSNI at Ardoyne last Sunday. But as my noble friend Lord Empey said, members of the PSNI face murderous violence from republicans daily. The people of Northern Ireland, and indeed we in this House, owe a debt of gratitude to the PSNI and its bravery. My noble friend Lord Empey talked about declaring an interest, and I have to declare an interest in that my cash flow has been extremely improved by the late collection of the rates.
Establishing an Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland is absolutely vital, as the United Kingdom is about to embark on formal negotiations with the European Union. We need strong voices arguing for Northern Ireland here in Parliament and in Stormont. Likewise, with the upcoming Westminster election, it is vital that we elect for Northern Ireland 18 MPs who are willing to take their places in this Parliament. What we do not need is the abstention of Sinn Feiners, receiving a salary and drawing maximum expenses without any meaningful way of contributing to the Parliament in London. We need a strong voice for Northern Ireland to ensure that we get the best possible deal for our farmers, universities, businesses, communities and voluntary sector.
The legislation brought forward yesterday by the Secretary of State provides some certainty by striking a regional rate so that the rates will be collected and public finances and local government services can still continue to function in Northern Ireland. However, it is somewhat embarrassing that something as clearly a devolved issue as Northern Ireland regional rates has been legislated here in Westminster. It is a sad indictment of the current state of affairs in Northern Ireland politics and in particular the conduct of DUP and Sinn Fein, currently the two largest parties in Ulster.
The Bill seeks to extend the date for a formal Executive, which will give some breathing space after the general election on 8 June. However, devolution in Northern Ireland cannot simply be put on ice without consequences. With no Government in place, key strategic decisions are not being taken regarding the health service, our education system, our economy and many other factors. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has alluded to, one casualty of the current political crisis is the devolution of corporation tax. It now appears extremely unlikely that we will see a rate of 12.5% by April 2018, as was previously agreed. This represents a very great missed opportunity.
The indicative budget and departmental allocations brought forward yesterday by the Secretary of State have no statutory footing or ministerial oversight. It is a civil servant’s budget, and that position is simply not sustainable. Decisions regarding the public finances should be taken by responsible Northern Ireland Ministers who are accountable for their actions, not simply drawn up by Permanent Secretaries.
In March, 90 MLAs were elected by the people of Northern Ireland to a local Assembly in the expectation of their forming an Executive at Stormont where local decisions could be taken and Northern Ireland Ministers could be held to account. The steps taken this week by the Secretary of State should be an exception. We need devolved government back up and running as soon as possible so that the Secretary of State does not have to legislate for us again in the near future. In the meantime, though, my party supports the Bill.
My Lords, I too identify myself with the comments made by my noble friend Lady Suttie about the horrible events in north Belfast and, indeed, about the Bill itself. At this late stage of the Parliament, and at this late stage of a debate on this emergency legislation, it would be quite inappropriate for me to make a lengthy speech or one that simply repeated things that had already been said in the debate. However, there are one or two things that are worth saying.
No one ever thought that the peace process would be a sprint. Some realised it would be a marathon; others realised it would be a steeplechase with plenty of hurdles. The truth is that in many ways it is a relay race, with Governments passing the baton from one to the next. This generation of Northern Ireland politicians has dropped the baton. A previous generation learned, through painful experience of violence, trouble and many political talks, that there had to be some better way of organising things for ourselves in Northern Ireland. Of the many lessons we learned, the crucial one was that addressing our problem was about addressing disturbed relationships between our communities. The noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, mentioned the three-stranded process. It was three-stranded because we were dealing with three sets of relationships.
What has been forgotten by the current generation of politicians is that it is all about relationships. As I listen to what has been going on prior to and during the early days of this election campaign, I do not hear people speaking of others as though they recognise that they must have a working relationship with them. To some extent, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, if not others, demonstrated to the House something of the kind of problem that one might find. If we were to have members of the nationalist community or republicans in this Chamber—which we do not—the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and others would not have to wonder what they were talking about over such long periods. They would find that the disagreements have no difficulty finding momentum and continuing for many days, weeks and, indeed, years. Without establishing some kind of better working relationship with each other, there is little point in saying that we must have devolution, we must have an Executive and we must get on with working together when there is no sign of that being done.
That brings me to the proposition laid out by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. On the last occasion on which we debated the issues, he and I both indicated that some creativity of thinking was important, and he has taken that forward. I support what he said about creative thinking and the specific measure that he suggested: between now and the end of June, we hope that there will be agreement, but we will not be hanging on by our fingernails waiting for it. On the part of the officials of the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, serious work needs to be done on the option of the Northern Ireland Assembly operating much as the Welsh Assembly did during its first years: taking responsibility, not only because it is difficult to form an Executive but because in local councils in Northern Ireland, for many years, Sinn Fein, unionists, Alliance and others have been working effectively as corporate bodies and making decisions. Sometimes it takes a long time to get the decision, and the decisions are not necessarily always the best, but they are better than no decision and they are better than people in Northern Ireland not being directly represented by the Assembly. I give way to the noble Lord.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord and, like everyone here, I appreciate that he is casting around, as is the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for any solution to this most difficult situation, but the Welsh Assembly is a very limited parallel in this case. Why? Because what were transferred were not legislative rights but executive functions. Those functions were transferred from Ministers of the Crown here in Westminster to an elected Assembly in Cardiff. The legislative transfers were very limited. Therefore, it is not a precedent for Northern Ireland, unless one takes the view that it is possible to have a legislature dealing without an Executive. That may be possible.
I thank the noble Lord. I have to say that I am pretty familiar with the fact that it was different because, when the Presiding Officers of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament were appointed, all three Presiding Officers were, as is well known in your Lordships’ House, Members of your Lordships’ House. We were also all sons of the Presbyterian manse, as it happened. We spent a lot of time talking to each other about these issues, and there were many things that we did not agree to do.
For example, I suspect that my noble friends on the Benches opposite would appreciate the fact that when we were discussing the question of language in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the people in Dublin suggested that we should not go as far on the Irish language as the Welsh went on the Welsh language. The noble Lord is absolutely right to point out that the Assemblies are not identical, but it would be a mistake to think that one is merely casting around for any possibility.
We have to make changes to the way the Assembly is run, but we also have to ensure that we do not wipe out a generation of Northern Ireland politicians who will have to find some way to build relationships. They will not do that if there is no elected Chamber in which to meet and no elected responsibilities for them to take. They will go back to their own communities, snipe at each other and not try to build a relationship. It is crucial that there are ways for that to be done at the level of the Northern Ireland Assembly, not just at the level of local government.
It is also crucial that we find ways in which elected representatives at a senior level can be involved in the negotiations on Brexit, as has already been said. That requires a Northern Ireland Assembly, but it requires one that is taking responsibility because, quite rightly, the people of Northern Ireland will not support the idea that politicians are paid to be Assembly Members without any serious responsibilities to undertake. What the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has said is thoughtful; it needs to be worked on by officials at the Northern Ireland Office. We cannot simply wait until 5.30 pm on 28 June, when people suddenly begin to think, “My goodness, what can we do at this point?”. I do not imagine that they are doing that—nor do I imagine or even expect that the Minister will comment on this issue in his speech. I do not table this to ask him a question to which he should respond, because he should not; he should be working as he is doing, and as his right honourable friend in the other place is doing, to try to get an outcome. However, it is very important for us to think about what might happen in the other circumstances.
I appreciate that the implication of this legislation is that we will not have an Assembly election on the same day as the Westminster election. There are those who would have liked that to happen. I do not think that the majority of people in Northern Ireland wanted it, but for other reasons—I think it will be a very polarised Westminster election in Northern Ireland—the last thing we want to do is create out of that an Assembly even more polarised than the one before it. So it is the right decision by the Secretary of State and his colleagues, and I support it, but I raise the concern that we must not feel that, by passing this, we have put the problem to bed. As other noble Lords have said, we are simply putting on a piece of sticking plaster that takes us through the next couple of months. Then we will have some seriously difficult problems that will undoubtedly come back to your Lordships’ House one way or another.
My Lords, I shall speak briefly in the gap for two reasons. First, it is important that there should be voices from other parts of the United Kingdom to this integral part of our United Kingdom. With the exception of that of my noble friend Lord Lexden, all the extremely well-informed speeches have come from Members from Northern Ireland. That is right and proper, but let them understand that those in the rest of the kingdom are as concerned as they are at the future of this glorious part of our country.
The second reason why I seek to speak is that I had the honour, for the whole of the 2005 Parliament, of chairing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in another place. I saw at first hand the development of something truly remarkable—a power-sharing Executive with the late Lord Bannside, Ian Paisley, and Martin McGuinness together. I shall never forget the meetings, particularly with Ian Paisley, when he took that extraordinarily brave step.
On 2 March, the people of Northern Ireland voted, hoping, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, to be voting for an Assembly from which an Executive would emerge. The last thing that the people of Northern Ireland want or need is yet another election after 8 June—but, of course, the worst thing that could possibly happen would be the imposition force majeure of direct rule. We have to do everything possible and use all our ingenuity to ensure that that does not happen.
You do not have to be a mathematician to realise that 29 June is only three weeks after 8 June, and I hope that the Secretary of State, who has had the opportunity to listen to much of this debate, and my noble friend on the Front Bench, will take into account the very sensible and imaginative suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and my noble friend Lord Trimble during this debate. I hope that they will think, too, of the fundamental point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in talking about parliamentary oversight. It is a gap—and whether it is via Select Committee, or an adjudicating panel of your Lordships and the other place, there are many ways in which this can be done. We should all turn our minds to them, but what must not happen is that we go back to direct rule or have another wholly unnecessary election in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I shall speak briefly in the gap to commend the Minister’s words when he said that the legislation represented the duty that Parliament owes to the people of Northern Ireland. I agree strongly, but I have one reservation about this legislation. A regional rate must be set; the rationale given in the papers that we have seen associated with this Bill is a little too coy.
The fact of the matter is that the United Kingdom’s subvention to Northern Ireland—which I fully support; it is what the union means—is the equivalent of £20,000 a year to every family of two. In such a context, not to set a regional rate would be absolutely outrageous, and I think that this should be stated absolutely explicitly. For this deeper reason, the tradition has grown up—it exists on the unionist side, the Northern Irish side and the London side—of not talking about the financial realities in Northern Ireland and the scale of that subvention. I am now convinced that we will not get a settlement or a deal on devolution unless people come to terms with the reality of the United Kingdom and the profound economic benefits that it brings to Northern Ireland.
As I have said, both for reasons that are very understandable, the Westminster Government have not talked much about this in public and the people of Northern Ireland and their parties have talked remarkably little about it. But it is part of the way in which we can shift the discourse on to greater realism. I strongly support this legislation, but I think the argumentation for it is just a little too coy.
My Lords, I, too, will be brief in using the gap. I think that what noble Lords have heard this afternoon from those of us who come from Northern Ireland, if they needed any conviction or encouragement, will have left them in no doubt as to the sheer frustration and disappointment which is felt right across our community. It is not easy at this stage to stand back and point the finger of accusation. It is, I believe—in the words of the noble Lords, Lord Trimble and Lord Empey—a time for us, in the positions that we occupy in this House, to encourage positive, creative thinking about the whole nature of the theory of devolution. What we are seeing in Northern Ireland is not just the reaction or the failure of the political machine, after years of violence and suffering and filling a vacuum, rather it is fundamental questions about what devolution means in a post-conflict society. I regret that, having tried to play a role in the reconciliation process as Primate of All Ireland for over 20 years, I have learned the hard way how difficult the whole question of the legacy issue is.
I simply caution the Minister that to talk about the publication of a White Paper on ways of dealing with the legacy issue is the right step but it takes us into a minefield. As co-chairmen of the Consultative Group on the Past, way back over the years, Denis Bradley and I discovered how difficult that minefield was. The minefield has not altered; it has deepened. We are not finding new mines, but ways of discovering the old ones and putting a different colour on them, putting a different emphasis on them, and hearing other voices talk about the same mines. This is one of the worst lessons about the situation we are in, and we ignore it at our peril.
The question is: what is devolution and what is the best form of devolution for the people of Northern Ireland? The mother of one of our security forces who was murdered during our Troubles said to me the other day, “We have simply answered the violence of the IRA and the loyalist groups by saying, ‘Let’s see how we can split the political process and make it another way of fighting the war’”. That is a devastating indictment of where we are: “another way of fighting the war”. In God’s name, can we not have the ingenuity and wisdom to find a way of increasing the responsibility that local politicians can have, not just encouraging them to use it but educating them on how to use it? That, I believe, is what the people of Northern Ireland are saying at this time as I—with regret—support this legislation.
My Lords, the remarks of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, sum up a great deal of this very important debate. He referred to the men and women of evil who we thought had been overcome following the peace process. Clearly, they still exist, as we know, given the incident in the Ardoyne at the weekend referred to by noble Lords.
What is so good about this debate, short though it is, is that your Lordships have brought enormous wisdom and experience to it. I hope that the Minister, when he winds up, and, indeed, his right honourable friend the Secretary of State, will take great heed of the points that were made. My noble friend Lord McAvoy has already said that these Benches totally support the Bill. We support the fact that it is important to raise the regional rates. When I was Finance Minister, one of the most unpopular things I had to do was to impose rates on the people of Northern Ireland, but it had to happen, so obviously we agree with that.
Obviously, there is a need to ensure that we keep on trying to restore the institutions. A large number of your Lordships have referred in this debate to direct rule. Some in Northern Ireland—none in this Chamber, I am sure—would like direct rule to come back, because if there is direct rule—I was a direct rule Minister for five years—it means that you avoid taking difficult and nasty decisions. You ask British Ministers to do it for you and then you castigate them for doing it. At the same time, all you are as political parties are supplicants to whoever is in power—a Labour or Conservative Government. That is a wholly unsatisfactory way to run any country, let alone Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, made a very important point when he said that it is so much easier to decide not to have an Assembly and to bring down the institutions than to restore them. That is at the heart of what has happened over the last couple of months. It is easy to bring down those institutions but very difficult to raise them up again.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred to the importance of having a political generation. Certainly, over the years since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, a political generation has grown up in Northern Ireland who are used to government and to doing things. It would be a tragedy if the talents of those men and women across the community in Northern Ireland were wasted.
A very interesting comparison with the Welsh Assembly was made by the noble Lords, Lord Trimble, Lord Alderdice and Lord Empey. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan referred to it as well. When the Welsh Assembly was first established in 1999, it was a body corporate—a bit like a big local authority, if you like, although, of course, it always had Ministers. However, in the early days, the Assembly had a choice. It could, if it so wished, abandon that idea and go back to the committee system of a large council. I do not advocate that as necessarily the best thing to do in Northern Ireland. However, we have to seek out the most imaginative possibilities we can find so long as they retain the principle that all members of the community in Northern Ireland support them. Such possibilities are worth a try if there is support for them. Indeed, anything that will restore devolution is worth a try.
Some of the issues under discussion can be resolved—for example, that of the Irish language. We have experience in Wales of the Welsh Language Act and of Welsh medium schools. We now have, although this was not the case originally, a consensus on the Welsh language. For many years it caused a hugely difficult political situation in Wales. People took very different views on the issue of the language and it was heavily politicised. I do not think that that is now the case in Wales because of what has happened over the last 20 years. I know, for example, that Alun Davies, a Minister in the Welsh Government, is very willing—indeed, he recently wrote an article in the Western Mail—to give advice to Ministers and others in Northern Ireland on how proposals for the Irish language can work alongside those for the Welsh language. The idea is to compare them and look at best practice to ensure that the arrangement is consensual rather than causing confrontation.
I take the point that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, made about legacy, but I think that there is a worthwhile proposition in the consultation. Anything that means that people continue to talk about how to deal with the past must, in itself, be a good thing.
Another contentious issue in the Assembly is petitions of concern, whereby everybody has a sort of mutual veto. It was never meant to be like that following the Good Friday agreement, but it needs to be addressed.
Your Lordships are not really working on these issues with a very promising back-cloth. There is no doubt that Brexit divides people in Northern Ireland and that the border and the relationship with the Republic of Ireland are hugely significant. Those things are bound to play a part in the forthcoming general election in Northern Ireland. They cannot be avoided—what is there is there. Nor can the general election be avoided. It is not the best thing to happen in the middle of talks in Northern Ireland but it is there. All I would say from these Benches is that the Government should keep the show on the road.
I understand that the Secretary of State and his Minister in the House of Commons will be fighting their own elections. Happily, like all of us, the Minister in your Lordships’ House will have no election to fight, so I hope he will be able to ensure that some talking continues during the election period and that people keep their eyes on the issues before them. All of us who know Northern Ireland realise that whenever there is an election, there is polarisation, and I do not think that the general election will be any exception. However, that does not mean that behind the scenes work cannot still go on.
The Irish Government is an important issue. They do not have an election and they have a role to play. They could continue to have discussions with the different political parties in Northern Ireland and I hope that they will. After the election, there will be three weeks to resolve this issue. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, made a very important point. This is all about relationships, trust and confidence between people and between members of the Government. I hope and pray that between now and 29 June there will be a resolution. If there is not, I think there will be a case for the Prime Minister—whoever that might be—to go to Northern Ireland with the Taoiseach to ensure that the talks are put up a step. That might not be necessary but I know that every Member of this House wishes the Government and the political parties well in resolving these extremely difficult issues.
My Lords, first, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to today’s proceedings, providing valuable and important exchanges on the Bill. I very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said. Today, we have heard great wisdom from noble Lords across the House, as I think is always the case when we have debates about Northern Ireland.
A theme of the debate has been that this is not where any of us wanted to be but it is where we are, frustrating though that is, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, rightly said. I think that there is broad agreement across the House on the steps that the Government are taking today. Another theme that has come across very strongly is that, in searching for solutions to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland, there is a need to show imagination and creativity. That was mentioned by, among others, my noble friend Lord Trimble, the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Alderdice, and my noble friend Lord Cormack.
I extend my thanks once again to the parties opposite and to all others for their support for the Bill and agreeing to its faster than usual passage through this House. As we have heard, the Bill is short and modest in scope, but it provides the framework within which the parties may come together, reach agreement and form an Executive. That is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for on 2 March, and it must remain the focus. This Government will always uphold their responsibilities on political stability and good governance in Northern Ireland. That is why the Bill provides the flexibility for an incoming Government to act in the best interests of Northern Ireland and the space for the parties to conclude a deal. I am very appreciative of the support of the House for this approach.
I was grateful too for the support there was for the Government taking the exceptional step of having this Parliament set a regional rate for Northern Ireland for this year. Although very much a step we had hoped to avoid, it is an essential move for securing greater financial certainty for individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland.
I turn now to some of the specific points raised during the debate. Obviously, one important theme was the question of where the talks go from here and what that will mean for deadlines and creative solutions. These issues were raised by the noble Lords, Lord McAvoy, Lord Browne, Lord Empey, Lord Trimble and Lord Lexden, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. It is very important that we do not absolve the parties in Northern Ireland of their responsibilities to resolve their differences. The Secretary of State will be meeting the parties tomorrow to consider the way forward. That is the right moment to consider how best to proceed.
Of course the UK and Irish Governments will continue to maintain contact during the election period in line with the three-strand approach, and of course the Northern Ireland Office will continue to be prepared to uphold the UK Government’s responsibilities during the pre-election period. As I have said, the Bill provides the necessary space for agreement to be reached, and that is where the focus should rightly be.
However, this process cannot drag on indefinitely. Clearly, if no agreement is reached then an incoming Government would have to look at the full range of options available. I am sure that any Government coming in after the election would want to examine any creative solutions that are on the table. As has been said by others in this debate, nobody wants a return to direct rule. We want a return to strong and stable devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Brexit has been mentioned, as has the priority that the Government attach to Northern Ireland issues. As we have debated in the past in this Chamber, Northern Ireland clearly has unique interests and those interests are an absolute priority for the Government and the Prime Minister. That was reflected in the Prime Minister’s Article 50 letter, and the Government are encouraged by the priority that has been shown in the draft EU negotiating guidelines, which reciprocate the priority that the Government themselves attach to Northern Ireland issues. As we have discussed and debated many times before, no one wants a return to hard borders, and we want to maintain the momentum of the peace process.
Mention was made of the general election—how could we avoid it? The Prime Minister is seeking a strong mandate to deliver the best possible deal, not just for Northern Ireland but for the UK as a whole.
Representing the interests of Northern Ireland is absolutely why we need the Northern Ireland Executive to be re-formed and get up and running again. In the meantime, the Northern Ireland Office will continue to champion the interests of Northern Ireland in discussions in Whitehall. We have been actively engaging with stakeholders across Northern Ireland to make sure that we understand and represent those interests effectively.
Legacy was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is absolutely clear that we should move to a period of public consultation. Clearly, the timing of this will be a matter for an incoming Government after 8 June, but there is widespread agreement that the current situation is unsatisfactory and we must find a better way—and better outcomes—for victims and survivors that is fair, balanced and proportionate.
On the issue of rates, I can confirm that all the parties were consulted on the approach to the rate and the Government’s approach has been informed by advice from the Northern Ireland Civil Service, in line with scenarios that were provided by officials in the Northern Ireland Civil Service to the political parties. On the resources available to local councils, I reassure the House that any delay in setting a rate has not interrupted the income of local councils.
In conclusion, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their support for the passage of the Bill and I thank my officials for the support they have provided. I am also grateful for the support of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. As I have said, the Bill provides the scope and space for a deal to be done, which is what businesses, community groups and individuals across Northern Ireland want. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I express my sincere hope that all sides use the opportunity that the Bill provides to secure the resumption of devolved government in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity. I ask the House to give this short and simple Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been suspended, the Bill was read a third time and passed.