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Northern Ireland: Executive and Assembly

Volume 792: debated on Monday 25 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effect on the people of Northern Ireland of not having a functioning Executive and Assembly.

Northern Ireland officials maintain a regular dialogue with officials in the Northern Ireland Civil Service about the impact of the lack of devolution on Northern Ireland’s vital public services. That dialogue informs ongoing UK Government work as part of the Secretary of State’s commitment to ensure good governance and the continued delivery of Northern Ireland’s vital public services.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that not having a functioning Assembly and Executive is detrimental to the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, who do not have a voice in the Brexit discussions, is damaging to the peace process, and means that key decisions are not being made? May I put this to the Government? Because the Government are so linked to one of the parties in Northern Ireland, they are not able to be a neutral umpire in this. Is it not time that they appointed an international figure of the same stature as Senator George Mitchell to bring the parties together and move the peace process onwards?

My Lords, the answer to the first part of the question is yes. It is long overdue, and we need a fully functioning Executive for the very reasons raised by the noble Lord. Right now, we have two parties who are inching closer to some of sense of being back in the room. That is how we are making progress—not that we are getting an outcome from the room; we are just trying to get them back into the room. We will close off no doors in trying to ensure that we bring them back to the table and that they leave the table with a fully functioning, sustainable Executive.

How much additional funding will be supplied to the health service in Northern Ireland as a result of the Government’s 70th anniversary boost to the NHS, and who will be responsible for determining how that money is allocated within the Province?

There will be a significant increase in the funding for the National Health Service in Northern Ireland. It has been deemed one of the areas that requires significant investment. To ensure that money is spent wisely, we will be relying on the Civil Service of Northern Ireland. I would much prefer that the answer to the question was not the Civil Service but rather politicians. If my noble friend will permit it, I will give him the exact figures in a written response.

My Lords, the Minister will know that one of the sticking points for an agreement is the status of the Irish language. Is he not able to point out to the DUP that as minority languages are accepted as equals in Scotland and Wales, there is absolutely no reason why the Irish language should not be accepted in Northern Ireland?

My Lords, if the answer was as simple as that, we might have been able to achieve some progress by now. Unfortunately, it is a little more nuanced and a little trickier, but I am fully aware that both sides recognise the value and vitality of the languages in the Province of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, only 7% of pupils in Northern Ireland are currently in integrated education. In the absence of an Executive, what is the Government’s strategy on delivering new integrated schools? Does he agree that moving away from segregated schools plays a significant role in helping society move on from the past in Northern Ireland?

The noble Baroness is right to raise such an important issue but, of course, this is a fully devolved matter. It should not be the Government of the United Kingdom who seek to impose such changes on the school structure in Northern Ireland. None the less, Northern Ireland’s Executive must grapple with these issues when they resume their role.

My Lords, political parties and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly have failed to agree on devolution and power-sharing. Will the Government now consult the elected Northern Ireland MPs to see whether they can find a way forward?

The Government are speaking to one and all in an attempt to reach that magical moment of bringing the key parties back to the table. No party can be left out. We shall listen to all who have something to say.

My Lords, the Question asked was about the effect on the people of Northern Ireland. The Minister has just answered by saying that civil servants are civil servants. We have a practically non-functioning Civil Service in Northern Ireland, and an almost invisible Secretary of State. When will they ask the people of Northern Ireland about the effect that is having?

I cannot give enough praise to the civil servants in Northern Ireland, who have been asked to stand above and beyond what they are expected to do. They are in regular dialogue, and we are in regular dialogue with them. The key issue now is that it does not matter how much dialogue you have, if you do not have a functioning Executive, what you hear cannot be taken forward in a meaningful way, and that silences the voice of the people of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, while acknowledging that progress is difficult without a functioning Executive and Assembly, will my noble friend take the opportunity to welcome the fact that some progress can be made: for example, the decision of Arlene Foster to meet LGBT representatives later this week?

Yes, that is quite extraordinary. It is the beginning, not the end, of a journey. I shall be joining Arlene Foster in meeting them in Belfast on Thursday evening.

My Lords, the Minister is always an emollient voice on these issues, but we are in a serious situation. The courts have already made a judgment that civil servants exceeded their authority in decisions made. We have had the hyponatraemia case, which was a public inquiry that I set up in 2004. It did not report until 2018, and we do not know how many, if any, of the inquiry’s 96 recommendations—following the deaths of five children—will ever be implemented, because it has not been considered by elected representatives. We have the issue of abortion for victims of sex crimes and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, and we have Brexit talks where there is no one from the Northern Ireland Executive representing Northern Ireland, although we have someone from the Scottish Executive and someone from Wales. How much longer can this be allowed to go on? More importantly, how many other cases and examples are there where Northern Ireland is suffering and not functioning because of a lack of elected representatives taking the positions they were elected to perform?

I can be very frank and say that Northern Ireland will be suffering in the absence of an Executive; of that there can be no doubt. It is not for me to try to work out what is happening in the Province of Northern Ireland; it is for the elected representatives, who listen to the voices of Northern Ireland, to move forward. The issues raised by the noble Baroness are absolutely correct: there needs to be a voice for the political communities of Northern Ireland inside Brexit. The Government do all we can to reach out to all those elected parties, but there is no functioning Executive. Until we have that, we cannot make the progress required for the people of Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness asks how long we can go on. The reality is: not much longer.