My Lords, the UK Government’s top priority is to secure a basis for political talks and to re-establish a locally elected, democratically accountable devolved Government at the earliest opportunity. In the absence of an Executive, the Secretary of State has made it clear that the Government will continue to take the necessary decisions to protect the interests of Northern Ireland and to ensure stable public finances, as demonstrated by the recent budget Act.
On 18 July, my noble friend Lord Duncan told the House that there were three options for Northern Ireland: the status quo, with unaccountable civil servants remaining in charge of all local matters; direct rule; or fresh Assembly elections. A fourth alternative—the return of local parties to Stormont—was mentioned as a miracle option. Have the Government decided which of those options they plan to adopt, following the rallies in Northern Ireland last week which proclaimed “We deserve better”? Is it not the case that our fellow citizens in Ulster indeed deserve very much better?
My Lords, I am aware of the rallies and I recognise the strength of feeling and frustration expressed by my noble friend at the ongoing lack of devolution. That is why the Secretary of State has committed to redoubling efforts to restore the Executive and get devolution back up and running again. Talking about miracles is somewhat dangerous, but the return of the parties to Stormont remains a credible and achievable option. The parties have all publicly committed to devolution and previous talks have made progress. The issues that divide the parties are not insurmountable and the Government are determined to work towards a solution.
My Lords, Northern Ireland has been without a Government longer than Belgium was. Is it not now time for fresh thinking on how we can deal with the situation? Despite the fact that she has a lot on her plate, should the Prime Minister—and the Taoiseach—spend more time there? Should we not have proper, intensive, all-party talks involving everybody in Northern Ireland? Should we not be looking for an independent chair who might have an important role to play? If we do not do any of these things, we will inevitably drift to direct rule, which would be a total and utter disaster.
The noble Lord has much experience in this area. I think it is fair to say that it is rather a dubious honour to be the country with the longest period without a functioning Government, and action must be taken. On the point the noble Lord made about the Prime Minister, I reassure the House and the noble Lord that the Prime Minister remains fully committed to bringing about the restoration of the Executive. Prior to the Summer Recess she was in Northern Ireland, where she gave a major speech on the union and met all five main political parties. Of course she keeps in very close touch with what is going on.
My Lords, in the absence of an Executive, and with this critical phase ahead in the Brexit negotiations, can the Minister confirm that the Government will consult all political parties in Northern Ireland and take their views into consideration, not just those of the DUP?
I can certainly confirm that that has been the case for some time. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, as necessary, the Irish Government, with the five parties in Northern Ireland, are consulted very frequently. We very much hope that talks will continue as soon as possible. That is what we fervently want.
Is the Minister aware that a humanitarian crisis is developing in the health service, with 280,000 people waiting for a consultant-led first appointment and 88,000 people waiting for more than one year for a consultant-led first appointment? I repeat my request to the Government on humanitarian grounds to bring the powers of the health service back here temporarily to offset what could potentially be a humanitarian crisis in the winter as the health service is totally unable to cope. Decisions need to be taken and this Government have an overarching responsibility, despite whatever they say. They cannot keep hiding behind the fact that there is no movement between the parties.
My Lords, no option is off the table, and the Government are prepared to step in to protect the interests of Northern Ireland to ensure that the country is stable economically and they have done so—I mentioned earlier the recent budget Act. Further, it remains our single most important priority to restore an Executive. The people of Northern Ireland deserve this. Health, education and farming, to name a few, are very important for jobs, growth and prosperity.
My Lords, the Minister did not respond to a key part of my noble friend’s question—namely, the possibility of an independent chair to bring the parties together. Does the Minister remember the enormous part played by Senator George Mitchell in getting the peace talks going? Surely the time has come to have a similar initiative and to find another George Mitchell to take over.
I noted the question asked by the noble Lord. To answer that, as I said, no option is off the table. Of course the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister are very aware of the tremendous work that Senator George Mitchell did. That remains on the table and may or may not happen; I cannot give any reassurance at this time on that front.
As I said, the Government are prepared to step in where they think it essential in the interests of Northern Ireland. I also make the point that tribute should be paid to the civil servants, who are carrying a considerable burden at the moment in ensuring that departments, including the health department, are managed in Northern Ireland without political oversight.
My Lords, an Assembly has been elected. The Members of that Assembly are still being paid. Why cannot that Assembly meet? After all, the other place sometimes meets before things have been finally resolved: there are precedents for that. Why cannot the Assembly meet? If it does not reach some sort of agreement, at least the people of Northern Ireland will see how their representatives perform.
If only it were so easy to answer that question. As I said, we and all parties are working very hard to ensure that the Assembly is up and running as soon as possible. That is what we are looking for—there is nothing new and nothing that has changed since before the summer—and that should resolve the problems that my noble friend has raised.
My Lords, the Minister has still not responded to the request of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that something be done urgently about the health service in Northern Ireland. What is being done specifically about the health service in Northern Ireland?
There could be many areas where we might all agree that it was necessary to step in. I reassure the noble Lord that the Government are prepared to step in when they think that it is necessary to protect the interests of Northern Ireland, but just point out that there is no Assembly at the moment.
My Lords, I echo the advice that the Government should appoint an independent chair. Whatever the Government’s position, there is bound to be a lack of confidence because of the arrangement between the Conservative Party and the DUP. As long as that lasts, that lack of confidence will be felt among other groups throughout Northern Ireland. An independent chair would enable that breakthrough to be made that we so sorely need.