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Northern Ireland Executive: Update

Volume 792: debated on Thursday 6 September 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I would like to repeat a Statement delivered by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Northern Ireland needs devolved government. It needs all the functioning political institutions of the Belfast agreement and its successors. As significant decisions are taken at this critical time, Northern Ireland’s voice must be heard. With new powers coming back from Brussels and flowing to Stormont, Northern Ireland needs an Executive in place to use those powers to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. As relationships evolve, a functioning North/South Ministerial Council is vital to ensure that Northern Ireland makes the most of its unique position within the UK and in relation to Ireland.

Other critical strategic decisions also need to be taken for Northern Ireland—on, for example, investment, reform of public services and future budgets. Critical cross-cutting programmes such as addressing social deprivation and tackling paramilitarism are stalling, following 19 months without devolved government. As this impasse continues, public services and businesses are suffering. The people of Northern Ireland are suffering. Local decision-making is urgently needed to address this.

The only sustainable way forward lies in stable, fully functioning and inclusive devolved government. So, with determination and realism, we must set a clear goal of restoring a devolved power-sharing Executive and Assembly. In the absence of an Executive, I have kept under review my duty to set a date for a fresh election. I have not believed, and do not now believe, that holding an election during this time of significant change and political uncertainty would be helpful or increase the prospects of restoring the Executive, but I am aware of the current legislative position.

In order to ensure certainty and clarity on this issue, I therefore intend to introduce primary legislation in October to provide for a limited and prescribed period in which there will be no legal requirement to set a date for a further election. Importantly, during that period an Executive may be formed at any point without the requirement for further legislation. This will provide a further opportunity to re-establish political dialogue, with the aim of restoring the Executive as soon as possible.

While Assembly Members continue to perform valuable constituency functions, it is clear that during any such interim period they will not be performing the full range of their legislative functions. So, in parallel, I will take the steps necessary to reduce Assembly Members’ salaries in line with the recommendations made by Trevor Reaney. The reduction will take effect in two stages, commencing in November. It would not reduce the allowance for staff as I do not think that MLAs’ staff should suffer because of the politicians’ failure to form an Executive. I commend the key role that the Northern Ireland Civil Service has played, during the period in which there has been no Executive, in ensuring the continuity of public services in Northern Ireland.

Following the recent decision of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal in the Buick case, I recognise that there is a need to provide reassurance and clarity to both the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the people of Northern Ireland on the mechanisms for the continued delivery of public services. So the legislation I intend to introduce after the conference recess will also include provisions to give greater clarity and certainty to enable Northern Ireland’s departments to continue to take decisions in Northern Ireland in the public interest and to ensure the continued delivery of public services. I intend to consult parties in Northern Ireland over how that might best be done.

I will also bring forward legislation that will enable key public appointments to be made in Northern Ireland, as I set out in my Written Statement on 18 July. At the same time, I am conscious that this is no substitute for the return of elected Ministers taking decisions in the Executive and being accountable to the Assembly. I therefore also intend to use the next few weeks to engage in further discussions with the parties and the Irish Government, in accordance with the three-stranded approach, with the intention of establishing a basis for moving into more formal political dialogue that leads to a restoration of the institutions. These discussions will also seek views from the parties on when and how external facilitation could play a constructive role in the next round of talks.

No agreement can ever be imposed from outside Northern Ireland. It must be reached by those closest to the issues, those who have been elected to represent the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland want to see a restoration of their political institutions, and that is what the Government are committed to achieving. This Statement represents a clear way forward and a plan for Northern Ireland, and I commend it to the House”.

My Lords, obviously we welcome the Statement by the Minister indicating that there is going to be a fresh attempt to restore devolution in Northern Ireland. I remind the House that those in Northern Ireland who resist being part of a devolved Executive and Assembly go against the fundamental principles of the Good Friday agreement. The people of Northern Ireland voted in favour of the establishment of these institutions, as indeed did the people of the Republic, so it is very important that they are set up, as well as for many other reasons.

I accept the point the Minister made about the salaries of MLAs. It is not easy to do because we want to ensure that there is a class of politicians in Northern Ireland that can continue governing when devolution returns. He is responding to the mood of the House and of the people of Northern Ireland. I agree too that elections at this stage would be pointless because presumably, they would not change the electoral arithmetic an awful lot. What is needed is an impetus to ensure that the parties in Northern Ireland want to set up the institutions.

A day or two ago I mentioned some of the ideas that the Minister could take up. One is that the talks—which should be intensive, formal, with a timetable and a deadline and which might even go somewhere outside Northern Ireland—ought to involve all the parties, not just two. Of course, the DUP and Sinn Féin are the most important because of the electoral arithmetic but other parties should be properly involved in these talks.

The Minister said that external facilitation means somebody coming in from outside and chairing the talks, like George Mitchell or Richard Haass—at least, I think that was what he said. This is very important because it gives people confidence and it is a fresh approach. The two Prime Ministers also ought to be involved in intensive negotiations at a certain stage, using the gravity of their offices to ensure that there is an arrangement for bringing back the institutions.

Without the institutions, this will drift into direct rule. A descent into direct rule is in nobody’s interests, least of all the people of Northern Ireland. I wish the Government well in their endeavours. The Opposition will do anything they can to assist them.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement in this House this afternoon. As he knows, we have pressed him on many occasions to see more action from the Government as a matter of urgency to restore the talks process. With this in mind, will he and the Secretary of State formally thank Naomi Long, the leader of the Alliance Party, for bringing together the five main parties for informal talks on Monday? This is the first time that all the parties have engaged in round table talks in the last six months. Naomi Long should be congratulated on this initiative.

As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said, the Statement makes reference to,

“when and how external facilitation could play a constructive role in the next round of talks”.

Given the length of time that Northern Ireland has been without a Government, it is clear that the political parties would benefit from outside thinking and a fresh approach. So, can the Minister say when the Government plan to appoint a mediator to manage a fresh talks process? Have the Government given any consideration to other creative solutions to get the talks going again, such as legislating here on issues such as the Irish language and equal marriage? This would relieve some of the pressure on the parties and allow a different starting point for the talks.

Will the Government also consider reconstituting the Assembly department scrutiny committees in parallel to a talks process? Assembly committees could undertake the functions of scrutinising budgets and providing political advice and guidance on key policy decisions such as Brexit. In this critical phase of the Brexit negotiations, does the Minister agree that it is essential to introduce some kind of formalised mechanisms to consult and take into consideration the views of all political parties in Northern Ireland—not just those of the DUP?

We are pleased to see that the Government intend to legislate to allow public appointments to be made. The clearest need is for the Policing Board to be re-established, but there are other bodies for which appointments are needed to enable vital work to continue. We also welcome the Government’s decision to take forward Trevor Reaney’s proposals on MLAs’ salaries. We are particularly pleased to see that staff will not be included in this. We do not believe that the current stalemate is in any way the fault of the hard-working constituency and Assembly staff. We are also pleased that there will be further clarity for civil servants in the future.

We on these Benches continue to believe that the best solution for Northern Ireland is devolved government and a well-functioning devolved Assembly. We sincerely hope that there will be significant progress in the very near future.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their contributions. They were both very positive and constructive, recognising the difficulty and dilemma we face at this moment.

The key now is a fresh start—a new impetus. It is an opportunity, but also a reminder. It is probably the last opportunity by which we can comfortably secure a functioning Executive and a restored Assembly. If we are not able to take advantage of this moment in time then, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, we will descend into direct rule. We do not wish to go there.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness were correct to identify the notion of an external facilitator. As I have said on previous occasions in this House, nothing can be off the table. We welcome thoughts from anyone as to who may participate in this approach. I offer formal thanks to Naomi Long for bringing together, for the first time in quite some time, all the parties in Northern Ireland. It is essential that all voices and all political representation are part of the sustainable solution to restoring an Assembly and a functioning Executive.

We are committed to ensuring that the appointments to the public bodies are taken forward in a sensible and sensitive way. It is not just the police authorities. There are others, all of which require these voices to be put forward.

As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said, we need a clear, intensive and structured approach with deadlines. If it needs to be something other than a particular tried and tested forum, then we should explore this as well. Nothing can be off the table but, importantly, this is the moment at which we must do all we can to restore the Executive. Once this window closes, we descend into a far more chilling and darker time which would be bad for all those who care about Northern Ireland.

My Lords, if nothing is off the table—and we all agree with that—can I repeat something that I said to my noble friend yesterday? Forming the Executive is of paramount importance, but the Assembly exists. Its constituent bodies can exist. Can it not be called together? Can I add a suggestion? When it meets, even if it has to be in a different room from the Assembly Chamber, cannot the Prime Minister be there to speak to all the members of the Executive. If she wishes, she can be accompanied by the Taoiseach. She should say that devolution, which was so long fought for, was a remarkable achievement, signalled by the Good Friday agreement. We would be failing future generations if we did not use every ounce of vision and imagination to ensure that it survived.

The noble Lord raises important points. It is important that the MLAs themselves seek to exert as much pressure as possible on all the participants to secure the return to a functioning Assembly and an Executive drawn from it. This must be the primary objective, but I will not lose sight of the other point raised again. The experience contained in the Assembly cannot be lost. This is why any ongoing dialogue must draw upon this knowledge to construct a better way forward.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister and, I do not doubt, the Prime Minister of Ireland, are committed to bringing about the restoration of a functioning and sustainable Assembly in Northern Ireland. The Prime Ministers continue to give that commitment and will meet parties in the near future to bring about and facilitate the necessary dialogue.

My Lords, I very much welcome at least part of the Statement, and I welcome the positive approach of previous speakers. Coming from my situation, based on experience over the years of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, I think that there is one other element to this situation which we ignore at our peril. Many people in Northern Ireland have lost total confidence in the body politic. They see the frustration of what is happening. They see the failure to address urgent domestic issues. Above all, they see an atmosphere, transmitted in their terms, where those elected do not represent what they feel. That frustration at ground level is one of the most dangerous elements of the situation that the Minister has tried to address in his Statement.

When we come to suggestions of how we could approach differently the way forward, there are many elements in Northern Ireland which are not strictly party political. There has been tremendous progress among the Churches. There has been great progress based on the trade union movement. There have been local efforts in many situations to bring people across the traditional divide. If Her Majesty’s Government are looking for a new way, apart from an external influence being brought to bear, should not all those positive signs in Northern Ireland be brought to bear to show the frustration that people have with the parties that are, at the moment, their elected representatives? What is happening is a general sense of frustration, particularly among young people—a new generation—and we ignore it at a cost.

We cannot ignore the frustration that must be felt by all those in Northern Ireland whose concerns are for the everyday well-being of the people of Northern Ireland, whether it be for a better education service or improvements in public health, whether it be those in rural communities who want farming to be supported or the fishing industry assisted. Each of these is an integral part of the well-being of the nation. Without them, when politicians become so divorced that they believe that their issues, their politics, matter more than the day-to-day well-being of the individuals who live and die, work and play in the Province—when those politicians place those issues before all others—we indeed reach that point of darkness.

In order for us to see some light, the noble and right reverend Lord is correct: we must draw not just on the political parties but, rather, all those in civic society who have something to say, whether that be the trade unions or the Churches, because each represents in a different fashion the people of Northern Ireland. They often represent them without the partisan components which others may have drawn on and sometimes exploited.

We need now to think afresh, and those voices must be drawn into the chorus calling for change now, to get back to a time when in Northern Ireland we are focused on the things that matter to the people of Northern Ireland. It must be the elected representatives there who deliver that. I should like to think that in any future election, those who have failed to hear those voices will be held to account—that is how elections should work—but we are not at that stage yet. We have for a moment a window during which we must put every resource we can into bringing about the restoration of a sustainable Executive, drawing on the wealth of knowledge in an Assembly democratically elected. All voices must be part of that just now, because it is fair to say that political voices alone have not been adequate.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that for those such as my noble friend Lord Murphy, who negotiated the detail of the Good Friday agreement, and me, involved in negotiating the establishment of self-governance in 2007, which operated as successfully as could have been expected for 10 years, it is especially painful and frustrating to see all that progress blown away? I put it to your Lordships’ House that there is a lack of understanding of how dangerous and serious this impasse is. Does the Minister agree that we effectively have direct rule by proxy? That is the reality as a result of his Statement. I fear an endless drift into avoiding tough decisions, such as resolving the serious health crisis in Northern Ireland and dealing with the problem of victims.

I express one note of dissent to the general consensus: I do not think that cutting MLAs’ salaries by the amount suggested will have much effect. Will the Minister look at withdrawing public funding for the political parties in Stormont, which is millions of pounds and would really bite? I would also give their staff three months’ notice, according to employment law, so that people realise that this is for real. If not, especially with no elections in sight, they have jobs for life to carry on as they wish without any real sense of a deadline.

The noble Lord puts it on the line. The reality is that there must be consequences for those who fail to deliver a restored Executive. There cannot be jobs for life; it cannot be business as usual; it cannot be continuity with what we have experienced so far. I appreciate the point which he raises: those who are in the room or not in the room seem not to be committed to the outcome which the people themselves are crying out for and, whenever asked, have endorsed. I take on board the points made and will reflect on them, but stress again the key aspect that we have but a short time to deliver this outcome, and those who fail in that will be remembered.

My Lords, the subtext of the Statement is that the Government are hunkering down for a prolonged period of no government. The Secretary of State is jumping before she is pushed by the courts over the elections, because a judicial review is already pending and I do not think she could have defended herself had action not been taken.

Given that it is highly unlikely that there will be any immediate restoration of devolution, I drew to the House’s attention on Tuesday the plight of our National Health Service in Northern Ireland. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, pointed out, this should be a completely non-political and humanitarian situation. I ask the Minister to consult his right honourable friend in the other place to see whether they can arrange, in consultation with the other parties—the Opposition, the Liberal Democrats and others—all-party support for restoring those powers temporarily to here, so that we can do something about the hundreds of thousands of people on waiting lists and the 89,000 people who are waiting for more than 12 months for their first consultant-led appointment. We are talking about quality of life and ultimately, I believe, about life and death. Surely we can do something. This is not a political issue; it is a humanitarian issue. I appeal to the Minister to consult his right honourable friend to see whether that could be incorporated in the legislation coming after the Conference Recess.

The noble Lord is right to raise one of the issues that affects all people in these islands, which is the need for a good healthcare service—which should be, one would hope, one of the principal focuses of any Government. The fact that we are living through a time in which, in Northern Ireland, other issues have crowded out that aspect is a chilling reminder of how far some have gone from what I suspect the individuals who live in Northern Ireland would wish to see happen. I will speak with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on these matters. Money was made available through the previous Budget settlement to try to address some of the acute issues—but, without a fully functioning Executive, it becomes difficult to target it.

The guidance which we anticipate being offered through this legislation should give greater support to the Civil Service to act in these areas, but the very fact that I am saying this confirms the view of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, which is that we are broadly moving, albeit slowly, towards direct rule by other names, which we do not want. That is not the way forward, but we must ensure, during this period, that full support is given to the Northern Ireland Civil Service to address the critical, life-dependent issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey.

This is for a period; it is time-limited and prescribed and it will end, either with a restored Executive or with something far darker. We have an opportunity now to get this right, and all must be committed to that. In the interim, the Government will continue to push as strongly as they can to ensure the delivery of the very services that are so important to the people of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I rise to support one of the many suggestions made by my noble friend Lord Murphy a few minutes ago. It is simply this. All experience in Northern Ireland suggests that bringing the parties together is much easier if one has a neutral chair to do so. It is extremely difficult for the Government, who have an interest in the main party in Northern Ireland, to be detached from the process. If there were a disagreement between the Government and the DUP, it would be difficult for the Government to lean on it too hard.

It would make absolute sense to have a neutral chair. Senator George Mitchell showed how it could be done—the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, might volunteer to do the job. It needs somebody who is neutral, and I would have thought that it was in the Government’s interests to do this. It is one way of expediting the process. Otherwise, what is happening? We get Statements such as we heard from the Minister today, and nothing else. Surely we can appoint somebody neutral, bring the parties together and get on with it.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is quite correct. Statements from me will not solve the problem; they never can. All I believe we can push for now is to put in place the right structures that will help to move this forward. That is why I have said that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is open to there being a chair from an external area who can take a role in this. As I said, it is not off the table; it is now under active consideration. That is an important realisation. Whether the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, wishes to put his hat in the ring remains to be seen.

My Lords, having the Assembly, devolution and the Executive restored is very important. Twice in this Chamber recently, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has talked about bringing the Assembly back. I do not think the Minister has addressed that point in particular. Is there a legal impediment to that—yes or no? If there is, fine, but if not, the Minister also said that nothing is off the table. We need to know whether the Government are considering that. If it would be useful and helpful, maybe we should think about that. Will the Minister address those specific points?

I always like being asked specific points. I will correct this if I stray from what I understand to be the case, so I ask for a certain tolerance in what I am about to say. Much will depend on the interpretation of the standing orders that the Assembly has constructed and drafted as to whether it can meet in a different formation or formulation. At present that has not happened, but we are having to think afresh. So if there is indeed a role as part of a functioning wider body, which may draw on trade unions, churches or others to bring those voices to bear—whether it meets in a different room or in a different place entirely—none of these things can be dismissed. There needs to be an opportunity for those voices to be heard, but—this is the important point—voices that continue to repeat the worn phrases of the past and bring nothing to refresh the future are no advantage to us in this regard. We need to have new voices with a new focus. If we cannot have that, bringing Assembly voices into it would be a retrograde step—but if they can think afresh, those voices will be welcomed to the wider debate. I will correct that if I am not fully accurate.

I thank the Minister for reading out the Statement, and I reiterate the points made so forcefully by my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames. There is great frustration in Northern Ireland about the failure to achieve devolution. The measures being talked about today are an attempt to gently push the line towards devolution. I accept that that is absolutely the purpose. It will not be done tomorrow, but over the next few months there is some chance. It probably awaits the resolution of key questions on Brexit. Everything in the legislation gently helps.

Let me also say something colder and more brutal, which has already been referenced in the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Hain. We are moving towards direct rule by proxy. I do not regret the clarity of this, because people who are holding up devolution need to remember that there is a fantasy life in Northern Ireland politics. I have discussed the Buick case and the judgment with the Minister. I am very unhappy with the legal judgment in that case, but the people of Northern Ireland can live with a situation where the United Kingdom supports the Northern Ireland economy to the sum of £10 billion a year but cannot make any reasonable decisions to prevent extravagant economic waste. That cannot go on for ever, and that is why the House is proposing legislation to deal with that.

Equally, there is legislation about the necessity to call an election in the event of a crisis in the Assembly. That legislation has sat on the statute book and been ignored. We live with the ludicrous anomaly that we have legislation on elections but nobody pays it the slightest attention. At least that has been cleared up, too. So we are doing something a little tough here as well. But, in my view, these moves of necessity towards better administration, which are inevitably taking at least half a step towards direct rule, are important for those who want devolution back, and to make people realise that this cannot go on for ever.

I congratulate the Government on sharpening up realities in the Northern Irish debate.

The noble Lord is right to recognise what the Statement represents, which is to provide a safe space in which we can focus on the necessary elements of delivering a sustainable Executive. He is right, again, about the gentle push. But I have discovered that it is easier to give a gentle push to things on castors, so you can move them in a real direction rather than continuing to try to shove against resistance. We need therefore to be aware that if people are resisting and pushing back, we will make no progress at all.

It is correct that there is legislation on the statute book with regard to elections. The purpose of the Statement is to reflect on that and create space on which that election will not be called upon. The reality remains the same: if we are unable to deliver during this period, we will have to move very swiftly towards alternatives. Whether the parliamentary arithmetic will change after another election remains to be seen, but if it does not and we find ourselves ever further along that route towards the very thing we are stumbling towards by proxy, which we are trying desperately to avoid, we need to recognise that good governance is borne of those from the Province recognising what is needed.

Whether there is waste that needs to be addressed wholesale, these things must be done by the critical endeavour of those who are elected to do so, with those individuals held to account and, when they are found wanting, voted out. It must be the functioning aspect of any democracy to deliver what should be good governance—and, indeed, what the people of any democracy would wish to have.