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Northern Ireland Executive

Volume 783: debated on Thursday 13 July 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they plan to resume discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland on restoring the Northern Ireland Executive.

My Lords, our overriding priority remains to restore an inclusive power-sharing Executive. This is in the best interests of Northern Ireland and what the people of Northern Ireland voted for. The Government are determined that intensive negotiations should resume as soon as possible. This Government stand ready to continue working with the parties and the Irish Government, and no one should have any doubt of our commitment to restoring the devolved institutions.

On Monday of last week, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told Parliament that there was every prospect of agreement this week. Why did his optimism vanish, literally overnight? After some 10 weeks of abortive talking, is there really any prospect of a breakthrough? Do the Government have contingency plans for some other means of making the Government of Northern Ireland directly accountable to the representatives of the people?

The House will know that gaps remain between the parties, but we remain convinced that they can be bridged. It is welcome that the parties have emphasised their desire to remain engaged and to find a way to return to and resolve these issues. The Government welcome this and will do all they can to work with the parties to achieve a successful outcome, mindful of our responsibilities to uphold political stability and good governance in Northern Ireland. My noble friend will be aware that the deadline has now passed and the Secretary of State is under a duty to set a date for a new election. He will continue to keep that duty under review.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that, in dealing with issues like this, you have to maintain momentum? The only way a peace process was signed was through a continuing drive to make sure that all the representatives—in Belfast, Dublin and London—were continually engaged and pressing. If the Government are now so busy with Brexit and all its difficulties, is it not time to think of some independent person coming in to do the heavy-duty work that is needed to keep the momentum going?

I can reassure the noble Baroness that there is, if I may put it this way, heavy-duty work going on. Yes, there are a lot of issues that we as a Government have to tackle, but our overriding priority remains to restore an inclusive power-sharing Executive. Talks continue on a tripartite basis. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working continuously and very hard on the issues, and, of course, the Prime Minister is in continuous contact with the issues as well.

Will the Minister confirm to the House that it has been made clear to the Government that, in the event of the reintroduction of direct rule, Sinn Fein will refuse to co-operate with the institutions at Stormont?

No, I cannot confirm that. Our overriding priority remains to reach an agreement on restoring an inclusive power-sharing Executive. That is our aim and focus, and we intend to make sure that it happens.

My Lords, the Minister has outlined the seriousness of the situation. Can he confirm, or otherwise, that there will be an intervention by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in this difficult situation?

As I said, and as my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth said last week, the Prime Minister is fully engaged and involved with the issues, as the noble Lord would expect. In recent weeks, she has met separately with Northern Ireland’s five main parties and had further conversations with Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill. She has been fully updated throughout by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and has engaged with the Taoiseach on the serious situation in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, in the complete absence of both an Executive and an Assembly in Northern Ireland, can the Minister say what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that all parties in Northern Ireland have their voice heard on the Brexit negotiations, not least given that these negotiations have now started in earnest in Brussels and one of the key priorities for the first phase will be solving the issues in Northern Ireland?

I can answer that question by saying that of course Northern Ireland is a firm part of the United Kingdom and that the negotiations will take account of issues relating to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as a whole.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, before the talks get going again in the autumn, there is a strong case for getting together with the Irish Government? The last talks failed in part because the two Governments were far apart on the question of the Irish language and the Irish Government took a strong pro-nationalist line. The success of the Good Friday agreement was ultimately achieved when the two Governments came together, but that came about only as a result of pressure from the British Government. Is there a case for getting together with the Irish Government before the autumn and putting an agreed game plan in place?

I can confirm that informal talks are continuing. Of course they are not the main talks and what we want is for the main discussions to start again. Perhaps I could say that this is more of a natural pause, as the noble Lord will know, because of the parades process that is going on at the moment. However, we are ever hopeful that the main discussions will start up again as soon as possible.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that every single agreement reached in Northern Ireland which has been successful has been because of the direct involvement of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach? Is it not about time that the Prime Minister actually went to Belfast to talk directly with the parties and the Irish Government? Until that happens, I fear that we will make little progress.

The noble Lord raised this point during the debate on the Statement some 10 days ago, and indeed his noble friend Lord Hain made it as well. I can reassure him that the Prime Minister is taking a very close interest and is deeply involved in this issue. Should she see fit, she will indeed travel to Northern Ireland. But perhaps I may also say to the noble Lord that it has not always been the case in the past that the involvement of a Prime Minister has necessarily and quickly led to an agreement. I refer the noble Lord to the Leeds Castle situation.

My Lords, the Prime Minister clearly takes a close interest in this matter and no one would suggest for a moment that she does not, but there is no substitute for a visit: to go to Northern Ireland and to talk on the spot in Hillsborough with the various parties involved. When she is talking to them, will she bear in mind the most admirable suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Trimble, who has said many times that the delay in setting up the power-sharing Executive need not necessarily mean that the Assembly cannot meet?

I can only repeat what I have said before, which is that the Prime Minister will go when she thinks that it is right to do so and when it will make a material difference.