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Northern Ireland: Devolved Government

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 24 January 2019


Asked by

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

My Lords, restoring the Executive remains the Secretary of State’s top priority. As she has set out, there is a need to rebuild political dialogue between parties and she is continuing to encourage the parties to come together to work towards restoring devolved government. The Secretary of State continues to speak regularly with Northern Ireland political leaders to achieve that aim.

The DUP has repeatedly made clear that it wants to get back into the Northern Ireland Executive. What is the Government’s assessment of Sinn Féin’s current position? How seriously have public services, particularly health services, deteriorated during two years without democratic oversight due to the fact that Stormont is both the upper tier of local government in Northern Ireland as well as a devolved legislature? On 30 October, the House was told from the Front Bench that,

“there needs to be a new momentum”.—[Official Report, 30/10/18; col. 1276.]

Where is that new momentum?

There were three questions inside that. The first is an assessment of where Sinn Féin rests at the moment. There needs to be greater action from all the parties to bring about the resolution of an Executive. We have not achieved that, and I cannot give the comfort that I would like to my noble friend, nor to the people of Northern Ireland. In terms of the question that I know the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has raised on a number of occasions regarding the health service, we continue to invest in the health service but recognise the shortcomings of the current system. It cannot go on, as I have said before, and it will not go on. The reality remains that we must do more to try to bring that about. I hope that that momentum will achieve something within the window that we opened for negotiations to settle this. That is what we must deliver. That window will last until March.

My Lords, despite the Statements that have been made from the Front Bench over a number of months, there is no process taking place led by the Secretary of State to get negotiations going. As a consequence, a vacuum has been created. That vacuum is being filled already, as we saw at the weekend, by the men of violence. Will he prevail upon his right honourable friend in the other place to get her skates on and get a process started to get this matter resolved? It could have helped us greatly over the Brexit problem if there were a proper process leading to a conclusion.

I assure the noble Lord that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland does indeed have her skates on, but unfortunately not everyone else is wearing their skates and willing to dance to the same tune. That remains the challenge that we face. We are in a difficult situation just now because not everyone is facing in the same direction. But the reality remains that good governance must be the first task of this Government, and we will deliver that by whichever means is required within the timeframes that we have set out.

My Lords, given that there is no progress, will the Minister comment on the suggestion made from this side on several occasions that, if the Secretary of State cannot bring the parties together, we could have an independent, impartial person to chair such meetings between the parties in the way that Senator George Mitchell did leading up to the Good Friday agreement?

The noble Lord has made that point as indeed have many others on that Bench. We are actively considering a facilitator to bring about greater communication between the parties, and we hope that that will lead to the breakthrough that we need.

My Lords, there is a real possibility now that Brexit may be extended well beyond the deadline in legislation for restoring the Assembly in Northern Ireland. In those circumstances, in accordance with what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, just said, is it not time that the Government appointed a mediator to get the parties together to propose interim solutions such as re-establishing the scrutiny committees and to stop allowing the parties to blame each other for their total abdication of responsibility?

As the House has heard already, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, made it very clear that we will not extend this particular process at all. That is not the intention of the Government. However, we need to recognise that, irrespective of Brexit, this is about good governance in Northern Ireland, and there is no good governance in Northern Ireland today. We cannot solely rely on a Civil Service to deliver what elective representatives should do. We recognise that for what it is. We are now in the twilight of that particular opportunity: it will darken, and we will move on.

My Lords, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, I can confirm that my party, the DUP, is ready to go into government and back into Stormont tomorrow without any preconditions. But the truth of the matter is that services are not being delivered on health and education. Therefore, does the Minister agree that, until devolution to Stormont is restored, it is time to consider installing direct rule Ministers? That is the best way to gain the momentum and impetus in restoring devolution to Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord is correct: nothing is off the table. Unfortunately, we cannot take direct rule off the table, much as I would like to do so. It has to be there because, if we cannot secure an Executive, it will be one of the inevitable outcomes of this terrible process.

My Lords, as a former direct rule Minister, I do not commend it to the noble Lord or any Member of your Lordships’ House as an ideal way forward, but Northern Ireland has now been two years without a Government and there is no end in sight. The Prime Minister meets only the DUP, the Secretary of State’s meeting with all parties in November was described as a box-ticking exercise and there is huge concern and frustration in Northern Ireland. Like others on these Benches, my noble friend Lord Dubs made a very positive suggestion for a way forward. The Minister said that there is active consideration of having an independent arbiter, as we had in the past, to bring all parties together, chair those talks and have a sense of momentum that something is going to happen. How long can that be under active consideration? Should something not be done now?

The time of active consideration is drawing to a close. We now need to move forward on this matter. A facilitator will be an aspect we need to take forward. We are now talking about a matter of weeks to try to achieve this. I welcome the comments from the noble Lord behind me, because we need to have everyone in that room. This is now the time, but we are talking about weeks.

My Lords, is the problem not that you cannot bring in an arbitrator unless the parties agree to it? It is very obvious that one party is not willing to do that. Consequently, it is time for the Government to go to other procedures, not even to wait until then. If the Government take some action to enable the Assembly, or Assembly Members, to meet to discuss local services, that would be a step forward and would put pressure on Sinn Féin to come in.

My noble friend will recall that, when we last discussed this, one aspect of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act was to give stronger guidance to the civil servants, and we have done that. However, the point he raises remains valid. An independent arbiter cannot solve all the problems. The problems will ultimately have to be solved by the politicians in Northern Ireland. As I said in answer to questions earlier, we are now talking about a matter of weeks, not months or years.