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Northern Ireland: Devolved Government

Volume 796: debated on Monday 18 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards restoring a functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, what progress has been made? Not enough. The Secretary of State continues to work closely with the main political parties in Northern Ireland to restore devolved government. The Secretary of State met the five main political parties and the Irish Government on 15 February to discuss a further phase of talks to restore devolution, and held further bilateral discussions with the parties on 1 March.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that it is over two years since there was a functioning Executive and Assembly at Stormont? Since that time, key decisions have been made by civil servants that cannot be challenged—and they are normally on the cautious side, given that they do not have ministerial backing. Is it not time that the Government got a move on? Inertia is no recipe. They are betraying the Good Friday agreement and the people of Northern Ireland. Can we not have something more than talks? For example, can we go back to the original idea of appointing a neutral person to bring the parties together and make some progress? At the moment, nothing is happening.

I am happy to confirm the first point the noble Lord made; it has been far too long since there was an Executive in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord will be aware that over the past year we have set out guidance that can be issued to civil servants to allow them to act beyond what would traditionally be accepted by the Civil Service. All we are doing just now has a single objective in mind: to restore an Executive. We have not made enough progress, and responsibility rests not just with the Government but with many other parties as well.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former PPS in Northern Ireland for two years. Against that background of experience, is it not clear, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has said, that one way or another we need to find an external catalyst to pull together these difficult, challenging people in Northern Ireland, who have little trust in each other? Does this not suggest that you need the experience of some external party or other?

My Lords, the Government have not ruled out using an external facilitator. Indeed, they are actively considering that point. However, it is important to stress that circumstances at this moment may also be a factor affecting that role just now.

My Lords, while the Prime Minister is repeatedly failing to get her Brexit deal through Parliament, she has shown less determination in trying to secure the return of a functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland. Today, we are hearing rumours of a last-minute “Stormont lock”, and other negotiations, to try to win the backing of the DUP for the Prime Minister’s deal. I have two questions. First, if there is a “Stormont lock”, given that there is no functioning Executive or Assembly, would it be the DUP or the unelected civil servants making decisions that would affect the whole of the United Kingdom? Secondly, what assurances can the Minister give to convince this House that the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland and the UK constitution is being driven by something more encouraging than political expediency and the short-term goals of Mrs May and No. 10?

I am unaware of any Stormont lock and cannot comment upon that. On the question of where we stand as a country, the constitution must be respected, as must devolution. That is why we have sought to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland by every means possible over the past period. Without it, direct rule from here would be a terrible retrograde step.

My Lords, does the Minister not acknowledge that the longer this stalemate goes on, the more polarised politics in Northern Ireland becomes and the more dangerous the situation is? Will he not follow up things he has suggested before, including making the Assembly active while positive measures are taken to restore the Executive, rather than determining to get an Executive before the Assembly comes together, so that politicians at least meet each other?

The noble Lord is correct: polarisation is a great risk in Northern Ireland. As we have said before, we are making every endeavour to restore the Assembly and are exploring every possible way. On my previous time at the Dispatch Box, I said that I would sit down with noble Lords who have an interest, hopefully to take this matter forward.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the statement made by the secretary of the senior Civil Service union that civil servants in Northern Ireland who are now taking decisions are becoming public figures? It is worrying for them that they are exposed to the normal cut and thrust of politics. It is very important to bring about a situation with the political parties in Northern Ireland so that civil servants do not feel vulnerable through having to take high-profile political decisions.

The role of the Northern Ireland Civil Service is vital to the functioning of the situation in Northern Ireland as we understand it. In reality, civil servants have been placed in an invidious position. Without their work we would be in a much worse position. However, the reality remains that serious political decisions cannot really be taken by the Civil Service. That is why we require a restored Executive now.

My noble friend referred to consideration being given to the appointment of an independent chairman and for the calling together of the Assembly. When can we expect some decisions to be taken?

My Lords, the Minister spoke of the increasing danger of polarisation in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that part of that danger arises from the fact the DUP purports to speak here on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, but in fact the majority in Northern Ireland were for remaining? Therefore, it clearly does not speak on behalf of the majority in Northern Ireland.

No single party can claim to speak for any area whatever. There is a diversity of opinion in Northern Ireland and we must respect that diversity in every one of its manifest forms.

My Lords, could the noble Lord say a little about the discussions taking place with the DUP at the moment? Frequent meetings are taking place with the Prime Minister. Is this topic on the agenda?

My Lords, has the Prime Minister met with the leaders of any other parties in Northern Ireland to discuss Brexit in the same timescale as she has met with the DUP? All important decisions in Northern Ireland according to the Good Friday agreement require cross-community agreement. What efforts are the Government making to get cross-community agreement for the people of Northern Ireland?

Brexit is Banquo’s ghost at every meeting the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland undertakes in Northern Ireland—of that I can be absolutely certain. The important thing is to ensure that all those in those discussions are heard and that their voices are not ignored. We are not yet in a position to bring them together to deliver the Executive that we would wish to see restored.