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House of Lords Hansard
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Northern Ireland: Devolved Government
22 February 2018
Volume 789

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in discussion with political parties in Northern Ireland on the re-establishment of devolved government in the province.

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My Lords, over recent weeks there have been talks involving the main political parties in Northern Ireland to see whether there is a basis for re-establishing the Executive. Those talks made progress, but unfortunately reached their conclusion without an agreement last Wednesday. The UK Government remain committed to restoring power-sharing devolution in Northern Ireland. I gave a full update to the House on this matter on Tuesday and refer the House to that Statement.

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A draft agreement document is now in the public domain. Do the Government believe that the proposals in it for language and cultural diversity legislation represent the best way forward on those contentious issues? As regards same-sex marriage, would it not be best to introduce legislation in this place rather than at Stormont? Above all, has the time not come for the Government to show leadership and take firm action in a way that accords fully with the Good Friday agreement, to which Members of this House attach the utmost importance, as they have demonstrated overwhelmingly in the past few days?

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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for his question. There were a number of elements within the discussions, not least the question of culture and language. Progress was made; there is no question about that. Indeed, it appeared at one point that we were within a hair’s breadth of reaching the promised land of an agreement, but we did not secure that agreement. It is important to stress again that the UK Government are a facilitator of a dialogue between the two principal parties. Those two parties themselves must be able to find that extra energy to create the right circumstances to deliver that agreement. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want, that is what the people of Northern Ireland need and that is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve. As to whether this House should bring forward legislation on the same-sex marriage question, I believe that this is a matter best taken forward by a newly established Executive in Belfast which is best able to reflect upon each of the elements of the communities to ensure that they are able to contribute to that important, serious and necessary piece of legislation.

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My Lords, it is no criticism of the Minister, but is it not the case that his predecessors have told this House repeatedly over the past 15 months or so that an agreement is about to be achieved and that anybody who knows the situation in detail has doubted that? I and my Labour predecessors as Secretary of State are deeply concerned that this whole thing is unravelling. We have a Conservative former Secretary of State attacking the Good Friday agreement—I am pleased that the Government have rebutted that—and a political view coming from the Government that does not seem to understand that the whole Good Friday process before Tony Blair became Prime Minister, under John Major and even before that, took years to achieve, and it is all unravelling in front of us. That is what concerns us.

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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for his comments. The Good Friday agreement is the cornerstone of the UK Government’s position. I am very happy to reiterate that plainly and clearly and to distance ourselves from those comments made by others. It is very easy to knit a jersey and it is very easy to unravel it at the other end—far too quickly can we lose that which we have spent so long trying to put together. I am aware that on more than one occasion I have come before this House to say that we are hopeful that there will be an agreement, and I do not doubt that noble Lords in this Chamber today will share the frustration. In truth, this agreement must be delivered by the parties at the table. We believe that they were within a hair’s breadth of achieving that just the other day. We do not believe that we are at the end of this process; we cannot be at the end of this process; we need to have an Executive. The alternatives are not satisfactory, particularly against the issues which will face the people of Northern Ireland in coming months. We believe that the parties need to get together once again. I appreciate that noble Lords may be experiencing an element of déjà vu. That is not my intention, but the same ambition and the same need are there. They have not changed. Those two main parties and the other parties in Northern Ireland need to be part of an agreement which is sustainable and can command confidence. If we can achieve that, we will have done an extraordinary thing, but we are not there yet.

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My Lords, three weeks ago in Belfast, when giving evidence to the Lords EU Select Committee, Sammy Wilson MP said that he and his DUP MP colleagues,

“meet Brexit Ministers almost on a weekly basis”.

Given the continued absence of a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland, and given the Government’s role as co-guarantor of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, does the Minister agree that similar access should be granted to all parties in Northern Ireland?

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I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I believe that all the parties in Northern Ireland need to be part of this dialogue, but I reiterate that to develop a power-sharing Executive, it is the two principal parties that must broker that deal. The Government are content to ensure that no party is left in the dark as to our ambitions and intentions, particularly as we go forward into some of the challenging times that have yet to come.

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My Lords, as my noble friend said on Tuesday, as the 20th anniversary of the Belfast agreement approaches, the celebrations will ring very hollow indeed. Should we not continue to say firmly but quietly to both the DUP and Sinn Féin that they must not sacrifice what their predecessors helped to create?

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In response to my noble friend I will happily say that the Belfast agreement is an imperative, essential element of the Government’s policy, and I have no desire for that celebration to fall without an Executive.

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My Lords—

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My Lords—

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I am happy to give way to hear from the DUP.

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My Lords, it is clear that in the coming weeks, regrettably, Northern Ireland will not have a functioning Assembly or Executive at a time when decisions will have to be made on the details of managed divergence between trade regulations in the UK and the EU. Can the Minister assure me that, given the absence of local political representation, the Government will arrange for discussions as soon as possible with representatives of the business and farming community in Northern Ireland to ascertain their concerns and, if possible, take steps to address them?

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I thank the noble Lord for his comments. I have already put in place meetings with the NFU in Northern Ireland and with various fishing interests. No voice can go unheard at this important time, and we must ensure that those voices ring crystal clear in the decisions which the Government must take.