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Northern Ireland: Devolved Institutions

Volume 791: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards the restoration of devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State recently met Northern Ireland’s five largest political parties to explore how we might achieve restoration of devolved government. We also continue to reach out to the Irish Government to encourage support towards accommodation to restore the Executive. This is the Government’s top priority.

My Lords, we all wish the Government well in their endeavours to restore power-sharing devolution in Northern Ireland. In the prolonged absence of devolution, do the Government intend to consider the possibility of an interim arrangement by which Members of the Assembly could be involved in decision-taking on the major public services—particularly health and education—which are now entirely in the hands of civil servants, unaccountable to elected representatives in either Northern Ireland or Westminster? That has never before occurred in our modern history.

It is our single most important priority to re-establish the Executive and Her Majesty’s Government are doing all they can to achieve that end. We pay tribute to those civil servants who have carried a much heavier burden than they would have anticipated, but our single most important priority remains to secure a functioning and sustainable Executive.

Is my noble friend aware that, in the High Court last Monday, Mrs Justice Keegan decided that a senior civil servant did not have the authority to sign off on the construction of a waste plant? As a consequence, all significant decisions hitherto taken by senior civil servants have now stopped. How can the Minister and the Government honour their commitments to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of public services to the people of Northern Ireland with the state of paralysis that has now ensued?

The Government are studying that judgment very carefully. Its implications are significant; indeed, an appeal against it may be lodged. It is a reminder that we need a restored Executive because we cannot keep placing on the shoulders of civil servants such a heavy and onerous burden.

My Lords, following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I understand that there will be an appeal, which will take six months, and then another appeal, which will take a further six months. Northern Ireland does not have that capacity; we do not have that time. We have an almost invisible Secretary of State. People on the ground believe that Westminster’s only interest in Northern Ireland is Brexit and the border. Given that, the one question being asked on the streets of Northern Ireland today is: who is actually running Northern Ireland?

Brexit has been a focus of discussion in this House and elsewhere. The people of Northern Ireland deserve an Executive focused on the issues that matter to them: education, health, schools, farming and all the obvious stuff. We need to get the Executive back up and running; the parties need to do so. At the moment, the pilot light is on, but no one is twirling those knobs. We need to get the Executive restored.

My Lords, the recent report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee makes some excellent proposals, which, if adopted by the Secretary of State, would go some way to helping restore devolved government in Northern Ireland. Is the Minister aware that the Democratic Unionist Party’s policy is very clear: it is willing to return to the Northern Ireland Executive tomorrow with no preconditions or partisan demands?

I welcome those remarks in the spirit in which they were delivered. The report of which the noble Lord speaks is important and the Government will consider its findings carefully.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that an additional consequence of the continued absence of an Executive is that important social issues remain unresolved, such as the reform of the 150 year- old, outdated abortion laws in Northern Ireland, which continue to cause such distress and are leading women increasingly to adopt the dangerous practice of self-medicating and purchasing abortion pills online?

Abortion is of course a devolved matter. None the less, it is important to stress that there are issues of conscience that need to be considered—but, again, we should not be relying on a Victorian law. It is time for change.

My Lords, when will the Government recognise that Taoiseach Varadkar is in cahoots with Sinn Féin and encouraging it not to come together to let the Assembly work, and that a main architect of the Brexit negotiations, Mr Tusk, is briefed by an Irish republican? As the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, asked, when will we get to a stage where we do not have a Secretary of State who is unable to be seen and unable to be heard, as has been the case on three successive occasions? Are there not people—

Are there not people in this Chamber who negotiated the Belfast agreement who could assist? Are there not some who served as chairmen in the Assembly? It is important that we face up to reality.

There is a wealth of experience in this House, on which I hope we can continue to draw. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland flies above and below the radar.

My Lords, I respect the work that the Minister is doing, as I think does the whole House, but does he agree that the longer the Assembly and the Executive are down, the harder it is to get it back up? That is the lesson of the past, even after Good Friday. Will he look at what was done in the past, when there were stalemates of this kind? Then, a summit was convened, involving the Prime Minister—not on a fly-in, fly-out basis, and not seeing the parties for an hour here and an hour there—and the Taoiseach, and the parties were kept at that summit, as was done at St Andrews, Hillsborough and other places, until there was an agreement. I believe strongly that that is the only solution in sight.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has engaged directly with the Taoiseach and others, but we need to think afresh and, as we progress in the next few months, we will need to visit a number of past experiences and try our best to navigate a much more challenging way forward. Nothing is off the table.

My Lords, the key question was that asked by my noble friend Lady Blood and alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Empey: this court case and its decision basically says that the Civil Service was wrong to take a decision of such significance that it should have been taken to Ministers. With no Ministers in place now for more than 16 months, that calls into question any decisions on these issues taken by civil servants in Northern Ireland. I respect the Minister enormously; he says it is a top priority—the single most important issue for the Government— but he has to listen to my noble friend Lord Hain. The Government must get round the table and, if necessary, lock the doors until they come out with an agreement.

I am sure there will be a lot of agreement to lock some people in certain rooms; there is no question of that. But the reality we must face is a simple one right now. That judgment is significant. In the past, the Government have sought to plot a trajectory from the policies and decisions taken by the previous Executive and not to stray beyond them. That cannot go on for much longer—the point of movement is too great—so there is now a necessity to find a way of restoring good governance to Northern Ireland. A number of options are available. The preferred option, the sensible option, the right option, is to ensure that there is an Executive that works in the interests of Northern Ireland, rather than people like me trying to work it out backwards.