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Northern Ireland: Devolution

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 14 February 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“As the House is aware, the Government remain steadfastly committed to the Belfast agreement and its successors. I am continuing to work tirelessly towards my absolute priority of restoring fully functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland. This is a very sensitive matter that requires careful handling.

I last updated the House at my department’s Oral Questions on 30 January. I have no further update at this stage, but as soon as I have anything to add, I will of course come to the House at the earliest opportunity. I hope that will be soon”.

My Lords, the failure to restore the political institutions in Northern Ireland is a catastrophe. It is catastrophic for the people of Northern Ireland, British-Irish relations, the Good Friday agreement and Brexit. Had the Assembly and the Executive been restored, between them they could have dealt with the backstop issue. I ask the Minister, and hope he answers positively: is there a plan to deal with the restoration of those institutions in the coming months—a plan that would involve the Irish Government, of course, through the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference; a plan that might well ask for an independent chair for the talks, such as George Mitchell; and a plan that also involves all the political parties coming together round the table in Stormont to try to resolve these issues? If we drift any longer, we will jeopardise both the peace and the political processes in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord makes valid points, as would be expected from someone of his experience. He is correct to use the word “catastrophe” in his description of the situation in Northern Ireland. The voices of that Province have been silenced during this important time, not least in the Brexit process but elsewhere as well. He asked the important question of whether there is a plan. Yes, there is. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been working to bring together all parties, representing all parts of the community. As we have said in the past, we have not taken off the table any suggestion of an independent chair to facilitate what I hope will be ongoing discussions. During that period which we have opened up to deliver a functioning Executive—which, noble Lords will recall, closes on 23 March—we hope to make progress.

My Lords, the absence of the Assembly in Northern Ireland has disastrously aggravated the polarisation of politics in the Province, as Assembly Members have simply retreated to their own communities and disengaged from the political process. Does the Minister recognise that there is now a requirement on the UK Government to take a positive initiative to try to bring people back into the political process—for example, by reconvening the scrutiny committees and by appointing an independent mediator who can bring the parties together to find a solution—and in the process perhaps releasing the Government from their captivity by one minority party in Northern Ireland?

I say that because we cannot be; this is too important. We are now at a critical stage of making sure that we are able to bring the parties back together. As I said in answer to the previous question, I do not doubt that we have missed the valuable voices from that area. It is important that we use the time which we have now before 23 March to demonstrate that we have through our work delivered an outcome which is bringing the parties back together. Whether we are able to achieve a fully restored Assembly before that point remains to be seen, but your Lordships will recall that there is a second five-month window if we have made sufficient progress in the first five months. Bringing back sustainable government to Northern Ireland remains the steadfast policy of this Government.

My Lords, no Assembly or Executive has been in place for more than two years, but there is a real desire in both communities to restore them so that vital services such as housing, health, education and policing can be effectively delivered. Does the Secretary of State have any new initiatives to bring both or all the parties together so that we can have this restoration, or are we travelling fast down a road to the appointment of direct-rule Ministers?

We are not travelling fast down a road toward direct rule, but it remains one of the options if we are unable to deliver what we believe is the most important outcome: a sustainable Executive. Good governance is clearly the most important aspect of this whole function. On whether my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has initiatives, she has been actively and tirelessly engaged in discussions to try to bring about the early stages of these talks. It has not been easy, but I hope that we will have some progress within the period—I want to correct myself from earlier: it is 26 March and not 23 March. Forgive me.

My Lords, yesterday in the other place the Secretary of State said that on 26 March the context changes. One respect it changes is the possibility of calling an election. The Secretary of State has talked quite a lot recently about a border poll and has successfully annoyed the DUP on that point. However, rather oddly, since the Brady amendment was passed, the DUP and the Government are in the same place as to the way forward in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister accept that one of the prizes if we move in any way successfully on the Brady amendment is that it opens the way for calling an Assembly election in a different context, in which there will clearly not be a hard Brexit? At this point, with the prospect of that, it is too risky, but does he accept that, after 26 March, if things go well in another sphere, serious consideration should be given to the calling of an Assembly election?

I thank the noble Lord for his thoughtful contributions. There is a lot on in that week of 26 March and I am fully aware of how important it will be that we make progress before 22 March on the key aspect of delivering a functioning Executive. He is of course correct that after that point, if we have made progress and are moving through the Brexit process, the world will look quite different, and that is something that I hope will be to the positive endeavour of all the parties in Northern Ireland. He will be aware that the local government elections in May will represent the first test of public opinion, outside of polling, and may give some indication of exactly what we can expect in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that what I am about to say is not a criticism of him? I think we all agree, across the House, that he does an outstanding job. However, I have recently had discussions with leading members of the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party, who told me in terms that the Secretary of State does not put creative ideas on the table for solving the impasse; that it is, in a sense, a dialogue of the deaf. I report to the House only what I have been told sincerely and out of frustration by those leading figures. Is there not a case—I say this with sympathy, having done the job—for the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to be more proactive in cracking this problem? There is always a solution to impasses such as this through negotiations, as we showed over the years. There should be a very high-level summit and people should not be allowed to leave that summit until they have agreed a way forward.

The noble Lord brings valuable experience to the discussion: I have welcomed many contributions from him in the past. I assure him that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been active. One of the challenges will often be that the activity is not seen: sometimes, like a swan on a lake, it is the feet under the water that are doing the flapping, rather than the bit above. That is probably not the best analogy I could have come up with—I am sorry about that. The point remains, none the less, that she is remarkably active in this area and we do have an opportunity up until 26 March. We must not lose that opportunity: she will be judged, as I will be judged, if we fail to deliver.

My Lords, I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said about my noble friend’s contribution. For two years now, he and his admirable predecessor have come to that Dispatch Box and said, “We do not rule anything out”, and “We are making progress”, but will he give me answers to two questions? First, many of us, including the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, have suggested that the Assembly could be called without having an Executive. Secondly, many people have said that it would be a good idea to have an independent adjudicator, and every time my noble friend has said, “We do not rule those things out”. Is it now time to rule them in?

My noble friend is asking questions that are getting much more specific, which I welcome. On his first point, regarding the Assembly, we are now seeking to pull all aspects of the community together through bilateral dialogue, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that the Assembly is an entity that we will need to use in the future. On the question of a facilitator or an adjudicator, he is quite right that I have said many times that nothing is off the table. I do not want to repeat myself, because I will become tedious, but we believe that this aspect has a part to play. It may not be a part at the outset, but we do see that this needs to be part of our ongoing consideration.

My Lords, in the past we found that when we dealt with the big political questions it was very difficult to get anywhere, but if we got down to some practical issues it was often possible to get engagement. I suggest that the Minister puts it to the Secretary of State that addressing agriculture and the agri-food business on a cross-border basis, and energy requirements, particularly electricity, are practical issues that do not frighten the horses and might provide a way forward for Her Majesty’s Government in engaging with the Irish Government, but with the backing of the parties in Northern Ireland, rather than with a completely non-functioning polity in the Province.

The noble Lord is correct: it is very hard to climb a mountain in one step, we need to begin in the foothills. He brings up the issues of agriculture, food and electricity and I assure him that these are areas where we have had significant discussions, not least because they are directly affected by the outcome of the Brexit process—a needful, correct situation needs to be there after Brexit on these areas. We continue to look at this as being like doing a jigsaw by tackling the edges first before putting the pieces into the middle. That is what we are trying to do. I do not think that we can solve the big picture in one step, but we need to make sure that the right people are in the room to deliver the outcome that I know we all wish to see.