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House of Lords Hansard
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Northern Ireland Update
20 February 2018
Volume 789

Statement

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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now 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:

“With permission I should like to make a Statement about the current political situation in Northern Ireland. Over recent weeks, there have been talks involving the main political parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the two largest parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin, to see if there is a basis for re-establishing the Executive. The UK Government have facilitated and supported these intensive negotiations. We have been in close touch with all the parties, and responded to requests for advice and support.

The Irish Government have also been involved in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach. I would like to place on record my appreciation of the contribution made by the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, and his team. In addition, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been consistently and closely involved, speaking to party leaders and visiting Belfast last Monday. I have continued to give her up-to-date reports as the talks have progressed.

The aim of those talks has been very clear: to bring about the re-establishment of inclusive, devolved government at Stormont, which Northern Ireland has effectively been without for over 13 months. In so doing, we have been able to build on the progress made by my predecessor, my right honourable friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who I warmly welcome back to this House today”.

I share that welcome. The Statement continues:

“In the Government’s view both the DUP and Sinn Féin participated in discussions seriously and in good faith, and we believe that progress towards reaching agreement on all the key substantive issues has been made. It became possible in the light of this progress to identify a basis for a possible agreement to allow an Executive to be formed, embracing how the parties ensured the Executive was sustainable and how they reached a balanced and fair accommodation on the difficult issues of language and culture and how this was reflected in a package of legislation. Many other issues were addressed too, if not always resolved. Unfortunately, however, by last Wednesday it had become clear that the current phase of talks had reached a conclusion, without such an agreement being finalised and endorsed by both parties. As I said then, it is important for everyone to reflect on the circumstances which have led to this and their positions, both now and in the future.

What is important today is for me to give some direction as to next steps. First, as our manifesto at the last election set out, this Government believe in devolution under the terms of the 1998 Belfast agreement. We want to see local politicians taking decisions over local matters accountable to a local Assembly. We need devolved government to help deliver a stronger economy, to build a stronger society and to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is properly heard as we leave the European Union. In addition we want to see all of the other institutions of the agreement operating in the way that was intended.

I cannot reiterate too strongly that devolved government is in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland because it ensures that their interests and concerns are fairly and equitably represented. It is also in the best interests of maintaining and strengthening the union, to which this Government remain fully committed, consistent with the principle of consent. So we will continue to explore with the parties whether the basis for a political agreement still exists, and, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has reaffirmed, we stand ready to bring forward the necessary legislation that would enable an Executive to be formed at the earliest opportunity. That is this Government’s clear hope and desire, and something that I believe is shared widely across the House.

Secondly, however, things in Northern Ireland cannot simply remain in a state of limbo. A number of challenging decisions will have to be taken. Ultimately, the Government have a responsibility to ensure good governance and the continued delivery of public services. In particular, as the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has made clear, there needs to be certainty and clarity about a budget for Northern Ireland for the next year as soon as possible. I intend to take steps to provide clarity on the budget and I will update the House as soon as I am in a position to do so. This is clearly not where I want to be, but in the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland, I will have no other choice.

Over the longer term, the Government will not shirk our responsibilities to take whatever steps are necessary to provide certainty and stability for the people of Northern Ireland while maintaining our commitment to govern with rigorous impartiality in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. But we will do that only once we are sure that all other viable options designed to restore devolved government have been properly considered, including my current statutory obligation to call an Assembly election.

In the absence of devolution it is also right that we consider the issue of salaries for Assembly Members. At the end of last year, my right honourable friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup received recommendations on this from Mr Trevor Reaney, a former Clerk to the Assembly. The Government will need to decide shortly on the next steps. I acknowledge the public concern that while a number of Assembly Members continue to carry out constituency and representative functions, current salaries are being maintained while the Assembly is not meeting.

On the issue of addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, the Government have manifesto commitments to consult on the implementation of the bodies set out in the 2014 Stormont House agreement and to support the reform of inquests. I would much prefer to do this in the context of an agreement that sees the restoration of a devolved Executive, but I am conscious of the Government’s responsibilities to make progress in this area to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors, the people who suffered most during the Troubles. We will continue to proceed toward a full consultation as soon as possible so that everyone can have their say.

As the House will recognise, this April marks the 20th anniversary of the historic Belfast agreement. That agreement, along with its successors, has been fundamental in helping Northern Ireland to move forward from its violent past to a brighter, more secure future, and this Government’s support for the agreements remains steadfast. There is no doubt that Northern Ireland has taken huge strides forward in the past 20 years. In my short time as Northern Ireland Secretary, I have seen a place full of wonderful talent and huge potential, yet any commemorations this year will look decidedly hollow if Northern Ireland still has no functioning Government of its own. So everyone needs to continue striving to see devolved government restored and to build a Northern Ireland fit for the future. That remains the clear focus and determination of this Government”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating today’s Statement, and I say at the outset that we understand and appreciate all the effort required to seek the agreement needed to re-establish the political institutions. The UK Government, the Irish Government and all the political parties have worked hard to try to rebuild trust and deliver a deal. Although this round of talks has ended in failure, I commend all of them for their efforts. But on listening to the Statement, I have a sense of déjà vu and it is hard to understand where, despite all this effort, progress has been made.

I took the opportunity to reread a Statement made last July by the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire; I am pleased to see that he is back in Parliament today. Both Statements, from July and from today, say that progress has been made. Both say that gaps still exist on key issues, but before we were told that they were few in number. We had more information in the last Statement back in July on where progress had been made. Both Statements say that the Government remain optimistic and that a deal is achievable.

Is the Minister to say anything more about where progress has been made this time? When the Prime Minister visited Belfast she said that there was a deal on the table. That was corroborated by the Irish Government and Sinn Féin, but it was then disputed by the DUP. To provide reassurance that progress has been made in the last 13 months, the details of where there was agreement and where gaps remain should be published. Can the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that he will encourage the Secretary of State to commit to providing that detail for the people of Northern Ireland and for Parliament? Only then can there be a real understanding of why the talks have failed so far. Such transparency may offer greater support for those who really want to see the institutions re-established.

I will give the noble Lord a personal example. At the end of last month, on 31 January, the report of the inquiry into deaths related to hyponatraemia was published, 14 years after I set it up as a direct rule Minister, following the deaths of young children. That report makes difficult reading into why those children died. It also makes a number of significant and very important recommendations for action. Some of those recommendations may have been taken forward already and others can be put in place by the relevant authorities, but others need the involvement of locally elected politicians in both the Assembly and ministerial roles, which Northern Ireland has been without for the last 13 months. I use that example because I have a personal connection to it, but it is not the only issue on which Northern Ireland needs its locally elected representatives to step up to the plate. They have a duty to those who elect them. Surely local people have a right to know what the areas of agreement are and the areas of disagreement that remain. They can then raise these issues with the decision-makers and negotiators.

Disappointingly, in the other place the Secretary of State said that this was a matter not for the Government but for the political parties. I put it to the Government that this is a matter which they should discuss with the political parties and, if they refuse to agree to publication, the reasons should be made public. Transparency is now essential.

Some in Northern Ireland are looking to the Government to make difficult decisions and have even encouraged direct rule. Direct rule is far harder to remove than it is to set up. I was told in 2002 by my noble friend Lord Reid that I was going to be a direct rule Minister for around three months. I was then in post for two and a half years and direct rule lasted for three and a half.

Many of us have been alarmed by those who have used this situation to oppose power-sharing and the Belfast agreement. That is a dangerous and reckless approach. The efforts of those from all political parties, here and in Northern Ireland, over time ended a conflict that claimed 3,500 lives. As a former Victims Minister in Northern Ireland, I met with many more who had had their lives changed for ever through injuries and loss. I trust that when a former Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland makes such comments, he is not in any way at all acting with the agreement or even the acquiescence of the Government. I welcome the comments in the Statement about the Good Friday agreement. Can the Minister confirm from the Dispatch Box that the Government fully support the Good Friday agreement as the only viable long-term option for peaceful governance for Northern Ireland, and that the Government believe that its unique form of power-sharing is indispensable?

We have heard the Secretary of State say that she intends to introduce legislation here at Westminster to directly set a budget for Northern Ireland. The Minister confirmed that. They have our support in doing so, though it is deeply unsatisfactory to have unaccountable civil servants taking decisions about schools and hospitals, and the example I gave of the inquiry. However, we acknowledge that resources must be allocated for services to be delivered. Obviously full-scale direct rule for Northern Ireland would regressive.

Political problems are nothing new to Northern Ireland, but the current impasse that has left the people of Northern Ireland without a Government for almost 400 days is a profound crisis. The Government have a clear duty to resolve it, and to preserve the Good Friday agreement and the principle of power-sharing.

Many in your Lordships’ House, and many here today, have been involved in Northern Ireland and retained an affection and an interest. I am sure that we all want the Government to continue to seek resolution and we will support them on legislation where necessary. However, we will hold them to account to preserve the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday agreement.

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My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. On these Benches, we add our voice to those who feel a sense of deep disappointment, and indeed some bewilderment, at this latest failure to reach a workable agreement.

Just over one week ago, when the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister went to Stormont, we were led to believe that a deal was possible. That a positive outcome has once again proved elusive inevitably leads us to ask questions about the structure, participants and transparency of the negotiation process. As Naomi Long, the leader of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, has said, there was a degree of inevitability that,

“without a more structured approach, we would not see a successful outcome”.

This latest failure is a missed opportunity and yet again leaves the majority of ordinary people in Northern Ireland feeling deeply frustrated and without a democratically elected voice at this critical time.

Much-needed decisions have to be taken about how to ensure effective public services for the people of Northern Ireland—decisions about long-term provision for education, health and infrastructure development—and how to build the shared society that we all want. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has just said, civil servants have played an excellent and vital role in the past 13 months during this political vacuum—and we should pay tribute to their professionalism—but without an Executive in place there remain inevitable questions about democratic legitimacy.

Three weeks ago, on a visit to Northern Ireland with the EU Select Committee, I was struck by the excellent and imaginative work being carried out by so many people in the business community, as well as in local government and civil society, to strengthen the Northern Irish economy, most particularly at this time with the additional and complex challenges of Brexit. However, their deep frustration that many of their plans were on hold because of the absence of an Executive in Stormont was palpable.

On these Benches, we continue to believe firmly that power-sharing devolution is vital to local democracy and representative decision-making. It must be possible to find creative solutions to the current impasse. In that regard, can the Minister say whether thought is now being given to bringing in an external mediator to chair the negotiations? I appreciate the difficulties in identifying such a person given the sensitivities, personalities and challenges involved, but the events of last week show that such a person is now needed more than ever. In the light of last week’s failure, will Government consider making the talks all-party rather than just two-party as they are at present?

In the new circumstances, I repeat an earlier question that I put to the Minister: in the continued absence of an Executive, will the Government now give serious thought to the creative proposals put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Trimble, among others, for allowing the Assembly to play a role in ensuring that the views of the Northern Irish people can be heard during the next few months, most especially during the Brexit negotiations?

Given what the Minister has said on inquests in the Statement, will the Government release funds for inquests into historical deaths, as was promised by David Cameron when he was Prime Minister?

It is vital that the hard-won gains of recent decades are not discarded without exploring all the options and alternatives. Northern Ireland and its political leaders have in the past overcome seemingly insurmountable problems, but this situation requires a degree of leadership and flexibility and a spirit of compromise that, sadly, seem all too absent at present. Short-term party-political gain must not be allowed to jeopardise two decades of progress.

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I thank the noble Baronesses for their insightful questions. I welcome the support—I think from all sides of this House—for trying to move this matter forward. It is true that the sense of déjà-vu is to some degree palpable. We have been speaking of the closeness between the parties involved. Indeed, that closeness brought about such proximity that it was anticipated that we would be making a very different Statement today, but we are not. We are instead making a statement, I suspect, of regret that we have not been able to bridge those gaps. The important thing to stress here is that the UK Government have acted in good faith to try to bring together the two key parties that will be instrumental in forming a functioning, sustainable Executive. We have done all we can to facilitate that dialogue.

I shall answer the specific questions raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, put her finger on it when she reflected on the inquiry she set up all those years ago and recognised that it is important that we are able to deliver, but it is, in truth, the people of Northern Ireland who must deliver, and it is an Executive who must deliver. There is no substitute—we are not a substitute and nor is the other place—for that functioning Executive and it is right that the civic society of Northern Ireland must feel a degree of frustration that this has been going on for so long. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been clear that nothing will now be taken off the table: all aspects of the negotiations will be moved forward as best we can to try to bring about some sense of movement.

Again, let me move on. I recall the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who spoke about direct rule being like walking down the steps of Stormont: it is easy to tumble down but very hard to claw your way back up. Direct rule, indeed, cannot be taken off the table but nor should it be a priority or a single focus. There are too many other avenues that we must explore. I am conscious, again, that we must recognise that the Belfast agreement and the successor agreements are all part of and core to what we will use to go forward. I welcome the remarks of the noble Baroness: the Opposition need to hold us to account and make sure that we do not slip in any way from our clear commitment to deliver, on an impartial basis, a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. Progress has been made; the problem, of course, is that an agreement has not been reached. The bilateral discussions have taken place; the question is whether that information should be made public. At the moment, the parties themselves would prefer that information not to be made public and we would prefer to allow that to continue on that basis.

Turning to external mediation, nothing is off the table from this point onward. Again, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will consider every possible way of taking this matter forward. Indeed, the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and my noble friend Lord Trimble will be part of all consideration to make sure that every possible means we have to bring about a rekindling of this spark, to allow these talks to deliver an Executive, will be used. Nothing is off the table; indeed we have high hopes that there will be an opportunity for the parties to reconvene and to once again seek to bridge the ever-diminishing divide between the sides. This is what I believe all in this House, the other House and all the people of Northern Ireland so clearly and needfully desire at this moment.

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My Lords, the Minister is working, through no fault of his own, in some very dangerous circumstances. I think they are even more dangerous than some of the experiences my noble friend Lady Smith outlined. Let me put it this way: will he now take the opportunity to respond to the question contained in my noble friend’s opening remarks and distance himself, unequivocally, from any sympathy or support—even any understanding—for those who have called in the past few days for the unravelling of the Good Friday agreement, or the Belfast agreement? I say this because, without casting any aspersions, if one of the parties causing the deadlock is also now, apparently, calling for direct rule by the British Government and is the same party that is propping up the British Government, and has now gone further with some of its members calling the Belfast agreement “unsustainable”, there cannot but be suspicions that this had an effect on the conduct of these negotiations. Will he therefore make it absolutely plain that the Good Friday agreement, which has now been in place for two decades and resolved problems of tragic conflict in the island of Ireland that lasted for several centuries, will be maintained, in the spirit and the letter, by this Government?

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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Reid, for his question. He is right to raise it once again. I will be unequivocal and as plain as I can be: this Government do not support any of the remarks made by those who believe that the Belfast agreement is in some way dispensable, erodible or dismissible. It is not. It is the cornerstone of our approach and of bringing about a restored Executive. I am happy that the noble Lord has given me an opportunity to make that point very plain.

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My Lords, I also welcome the Statement but I am slightly disappointed by some of the content. We all want a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. I will be pessimistic: I cannot see it happening in the near future. In the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, we urgently need ministerial decisions in many, many departments, none more so than on a budget for Northern Ireland. For some 400 days now, senior civil servants have been coping without ministerial direction. When will the Minister begin to take day-to-day decisions on the affairs of Northern Ireland and, especially, when will a budget be set? Civil servants wanted it to be by 8 February. Today is 20 February.

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I thank the noble Lord for his question. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made it plain that she will now begin serious discussions on a budget and she will return to the other place by the end of March to deliver on that commitment. We cannot continue to kick the can down the road. That is why these deliberations will need to be much more far-reaching than the discussions we had what seems only a few months ago, when we brought the previous Northern Ireland budget through this place. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, for his comments.

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My Lords, as one who was present at many meetings with the late Ian Paisley—Lord Bannside—when he was breathing new life into the Good Friday agreement, Mrs Foster’s statement last week brought a chill to my heart. Will my noble friend pursue with vigour the suggestion contained in the comments and questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and look with real, earnest and urgent seriousness at the Trimble-Alderdice suggestions? The people of Northern Ireland deserve no less than that their Assembly, which they elected, should meet, even without an Executive, much as we would like to see that established at the earliest possible date.

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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for his comments. As I said, nothing now can be off the table. The Trimble-Alderdice suggestions will be given due consideration. We owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to deliver better government than we have thus far managed to achieve.

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My Lords, I ask the Minister whether the issues that actually matter to the people of Northern Ireland—the economy, Brexit, dealing with the past, health, education—have been discussed at all between the parties in the 400 days since we ceased to have a representative Government, or is it that for these past 400 days there has been discussion of same-sex marriage, the Irish language Act and the Ulster-Scots language Act? If it is, we are going nowhere. He has just said that there are too many avenues to explore to move to direct rule. I am not advocating moving to direct rule but the people of Northern Ireland think that ultimately there are two outcomes to this: one is devolved government, which we need, and the other is direct rule. Are there other options? Northern Ireland has become more and more divided over the past 12 months. This sectarian division has got worse and worse. I do not think re-establishing the Assembly but with non-executive powers—no powers to make decisions—would improve that situation; I think it would make it worse.

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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, for her comments. The discussions inside the room remain inside that room. I suspect that we are quite familiar with the points at issue; they stem from the questions of sustainability, culture, language and respect. But when you talk to the people of Northern Ireland, I suspect that other issues dominate their concerns, not the least of which are health, education, wider economic growth and the questions of Brexit. This is a time when the voice of an Executive is required—in fact, it is overdue—in those discussions and, again, the people of Northern Ireland are the ones who are losing out because of that situation. There is no doubt that all options are to be considered—but, at heart, we must recognise now that the people of Northern Ireland deserve a functioning Executive and that it is beholden on all the parties to deliver it. The United Kingdom Government remain committed to facilitating that dialogue in any way that they can, but we need to get off the spot and make progress.

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My Lords, with the background of Brexit, does the Minister recognise that the potential long-term damage to the peace of Northern Ireland is particularly acute at this time? I want to state my concern at the suggestion of a return to direct rule. I share the concern expressed around the Chamber. Does the Minister agree that it is imperative in the short term that the Prime Minister takes a more positive and visible lead in these events, as John Major, Tony Blair and David Cameron each did in their time? Does he share my concern at the comment of Arlene Foster that the Prime Minister’s involvement last week was a distraction?

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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for her remarks. Direct rule is not a panacea or a solution—and, as she has already said, once the toothpaste is out of the tube it is very hard to get it back in. I can assure the House that the Prime Minister has been intimately involved in these ongoing discussions. Her commitment is without question and her actions of late have always been mindful of trying to deliver a sustainable Executive who will deliver for the individuals who live in Northern Ireland. Going forward from here, I do not doubt my right honourable friend the Prime Minister’s continued commitment and that she will continue to act in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland to try to bring about a dialogue that delivers an outcome that works for them. I believe that is in the interests of all the parties there.

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My Lords, I too welcome the Statement this afternoon. I also welcome the fact that Her Majesty’s Government are now to set a budget for Northern Ireland—especially to help our public services, which are going through a very difficult time. I heard the comment about an independent chair. However, knowing the politics of Northern Ireland and having been Speaker of an Assembly that lasted almost 10 years, I think that they would probably spend some time arguing over who that person might be—so I do not think we should add fuel to a very difficult situation.

At this moment in time, Northern Ireland is not in a good place. It gives me no pleasure to say that, so we all have to be careful with our words and actions while we see whether we can resolve the last remaining issue of the project. Does the Minister agree that political progress can be built only on an accommodation that can be supported by the whole community, and which is shared, fair and balanced? Despite the setbacks over the last few days, we as a party are determined to secure devolution for Northern Ireland. I say clearly in this House today that we will leave no stone unturned to try to resolve this issue. Can the Minister assure the House—and settle unionist nerves as well—that Dublin will not be involved in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland? The Minister needs to clarify that important point if we are to settle everybody down and get back to trying to resolve what I believe is the last remaining issue.

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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hay, for his intervention. It is in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland that we achieve good government. Now more than ever, good government will be delivered by devolution—by a functioning Executive—but at heart it will have to be delivered for Northern Ireland no matter what happens, because we cannot keep kicking the can down the road. The three-stranded approach will be at the heart of our ongoing discussions with all parties, but I am happy to confirm to the noble Lord that no joint approach to the administration of government between the United Kingdom and Ireland is on the cards.

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My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, talked about transparency. We have a “she said/she said” argument at home over what was and was not on the table, which I believe will be settled only when those documents are in the public domain. I seem to recall the late Lord Bannside talking many times about secret documents; well, now there is a chance to make secret documents public. Let us see what was on the table.

The Minister said in his Statement:

“First, as our manifesto at the last election set out, this Government believe in devolution under the terms of the 1998 Belfast Agreement”.

No, they do not, because the terms of the 1998 Belfast agreement are not what we have today. It was butchered in 2006 when the guts were taken out of it, after years of negotiation. The partnership at the centre of that Government, with each community having its hand on the steering wheel and the First and Deputy First Minister being identified jointly in the Assembly by a vote of the elected Members, was torn out to suit two parties, neither of which negotiated their part of the agreement in the first place. If the Minister is thinking outside the box and nothing is off the table, may I put back on to the table the 1998 Belfast agreement, as it was voted on by 71.2% in the north and over 90% in the Republic? If we are leaving the European Union on the basis of 52%, in all fairness we are entitled to have the vote that we made honoured and implemented as it was voted on in 1998.

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The noble Lord, Lord Empey, makes a very forceful intervention. The details of the discussions that took place between the two principal interlocutors will not be made public. At present the parties agree that, were they to be made public, they might continue to prolong the challenges that they face in trying to secure ongoing agreement. We will honour that approach.

On the broader question of the Belfast agreement and its successor agreements, at their heart is, I hope, a recognition of respect from all the participants—not just the two principal parties but the other parties in Northern Ireland as well. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, in her ongoing dialogue with the two principal parties, recognises very clearly that there are others to be taken into account when we make these positions clear. I hope—I desperately hope—that we can make progress going forward and work on a basis of respect. With the good will that I know exists across Northern Ireland, the urgency brought about by Brexit and the reality of the challenges faced by the various communities in Northern Ireland—whether that be on the economy, education or health—this is the time to deliver an Executive, now more than ever.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement and the rather elegant balance he has achieved between a ringing defence of the Belfast agreement and some wise and sensible words about the immediate future. Does he agree that it is even more important to defend the Good Friday agreement of 1998 at this point, because of the deal that we reached with Europe on 8 December? If paragraphs 49 and 50 of it mean anything, they require a viable working of the institutions and the agreements reached in 1998. It has therefore become the fate of the institutions in Belfast to be caught up with the wider question of the transitional agreement that was reached with the European Union at the beginning of December, so that is an even further reason for the ringing defence that the Minister has offered for the institutions of 1998. I say this knowing that the policy department of the European Parliament has just published an excellent report by Lars Karlsson, the Swedish customs expert, saying that it is possible to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland as there are technical means which will allow that to happen, even without any political settlement. Even so, and despite that important intervention from Europe on this sometimes exaggerated issue, it is vital at this point, because of what our Government said on 8 and 9 December, that the agreement works.

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The noble Lord, Lord Bew, puts his finger upon it. The Good Friday agreement has to work. We are in challenging times right now; there is no question about that. It is right that during this time the voices of Northern Ireland are heard loud and clear and are allowed to speak for themselves. The last thing the people of Northern Ireland need is me speaking for them. They need to be able to articulate the concerns and issues that they live with on a daily basis. The transition agreement is going to be negotiated in coming months. It is right and proper that their voices are heard. Whether they are heard through an Executive, which we hope and pray will be reformed, or whether through individual councillors and MLAs, with all the communities represented, we cannot ignore the voices of those who will stand on the border between ourselves and the European Union. We would be short-sighted and foolish if we did. As I emphasised earlier, I hope that it will be through a reformed Executive, chastened by the 13 months in which they were absent but recognising right now that the clock is ticking and that the voices of Northern Ireland must be part of the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

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My Lords, I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said and I cannot understand it. He tells us in one part that it is about the people, and in another part that the people really have nothing to do with all these secret talks and that they cannot be told what is going on. I do not understand that. I do not understand why some form of what happened cannot be put to the people of Northern Ireland to let them decide. People in the street will tell you that they want to know what happened. There is no point in having another election as the same thing would happen. We have to put it to the people. I am very surprised at the Conservatives: they had no problem putting the Brexit referendum to the people when they wanted it. The Good Friday agreement came about through a referendum and I fail to understand why this cannot be put to the people in a form that is easily understood. Let us take it from there. I have to tell the Minister that we are never going to get any real agreement with what is going on at the moment.

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I thank the noble Baroness for her contribution. I would draw a distinction between democracy and representative democracy. The demos—the people—have chosen particular political parties. The Belfast agreement recognises those parties and their role in delivering what I hope will be a fully functioning Executive. The people will hold their representatives to account, and they must do so in whatever way they feel to be appropriate, given the situation that Northern Ireland finds itself in. The key thing that I hope I leave with noble Lords today is that this Government remain fully committed to facilitating the ongoing dialogue. We were tantalisingly close, and we owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to continue to reach across that divide. If we do not, Northern Ireland will be the poorer spiritually, economically and in its contribution to the ongoing and important Brexit discussions. Please be assured that this Government will do all they can to bring about a fully functioning Executive. I thank all noble Lords who have made clear today that there is a commitment across this House to deliver a fully functioning Executive.