My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place. Before I begin, I would like to express sincere sorrow at the news from the weekend that three young people died in Cookstown following a celebration of St Patrick’s Day. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with their families.
The Answer to the Urgent Question is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on my progress towards restoring the Northern Ireland Executive and the other institutions established under the Belfast agreement. In recent weeks I have met the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government on a number of occasions. In those discussions, all five parties reaffirmed their commitment to restoring a power-sharing Executive and the other political institutions set out in the Belfast agreement. While we have not yet been able to start a formal talks process, I believe that the five main parties and the Irish Government would be in favour of taking forward a short, focused set of round-table talks to restore devolution at the earliest opportunity. Any such talks process will involve the UK Government, the five main parties and the Irish Government, taking place in full accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach.
As you know, Mr Speaker, the period for Executive formation was extended by the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, which lasts until 26 March this year. I am incredibly reluctant to extend that period. The people of Northern Ireland deserve strong political leadership from a locally elected, accountable devolved Government and I am absolutely focused on achieving this outcome. But as we stand here today, there are only three options before the legislation expires next week.
The first is an Assembly election—a costly exercise which would be highly unlikely to change the political dynamics. The second is an alternative approach to decision-making in Northern Ireland, such as direct rule—something that I do not believe is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. Certainly, they tell me that it is not what they want.
The third option is to extend the Act. This gives the political parties more space to come back together in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. It also provides the Northern Ireland Civil Service with the certainty and clarity it needs to continue to deliver public services in the absence of Ministers.
So I have today laid before Parliament a statutory instrument to extend the period for Executive formation from 26 March 2019 to 25 August 2019. This means that from 26 August this year I will fall under the duty to propose a date for an Assembly election. Both Houses will have the opportunity to debate the instrument in the usual way, and the instrument cannot remain in force unless actively approved by both Houses”.
My Lords, I join the Minister in extending my sympathies to the families of the three young people who tragically died at Cookstown.
I see the point of the secondary legislation that the Minister described, but I deplore the need for it. Northern Ireland has been without its institutions of government for more than two years. The failure to restore them must rest with the Government, whatever the different views of the political parties in Northern Ireland. It has been one long saga of inertia and inactivity.
I know from personal experience how difficult it can be in Northern Ireland, but I see no evidence that energy and commitment have been effectively applied. Frankly, the Prime Minister has shown little interest; no attempt has been made to appoint an independent chair; there has been no structure to the talks; and suggestions regarding a possible restoration of the Assembly on its own have been ignored. This has to change, since the absence of devolution is a massive threat to the Good Friday agreement and everything it stands for.
I share the noble Lord’s huge concern that we have had to take this step. We were very much hoping that the Assembly would now be up and running again—so I agree with him to that extent. However, it should be made clear that this Government and the Secretary of State have worked tirelessly to get to this point, where we now have a chink of light. We have a chink of light because there has been much engagement with the five main parties. Indeed, in February there was a very hopeful and helpful round table, and there have been several bilaterals since. As the House will know, the Prime Minister has visited Northern Ireland on several occasions in recent months and keeps in touch with all the parties on a regular basis.
My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I extend our sympathies to the families of those young people who lost their lives in that tragic incident in Cookstown.
This Statement is sadly predictable and could have been foreseen. In spite of the Minister’s reply to the Labour Benches, the reality is that the past five months have not been used to accelerate and move towards a solution. If he is right that there is now a willingness to do so, we have only five months, after more than two years, to get to a practical outcome. It should not be left to the argument that any one of the parties—for whatever political reason—is prepared to sacrifice the interests of the people of Northern Ireland because of wider interests. Is it not time, first, to look for practical measures to get the politicians working together even before the Assembly is fully re-established, and, secondly, to appoint a facilitator who can perhaps achieve what the Secretary of State sadly has not managed to achieve—to knock heads together and make people understand that the people of Northern Ireland deserve better from their politicians? Direct rule cannot be applied if it means that decisions are accountable to this Parliament, where most of the parties of Northern Ireland are not represented and where their voices are sadly missing.
The House will be fully aware of the challenging circumstances that continue to be the status quo in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord will know that these matters are not easy. But I will say again that the Secretary of State and the Government have been looking at all possible practical measures to try to get the Assembly up and running again. That continues, and will continue, despite the Northern Ireland elections. We absolutely do not want to get to the point where there might be direct rule. It is absolutely not the agenda and it is essential that we keep the momentum going. As I said, there is a chink of light and it is very good news that the parties are talking—but we need to get to a point, well within the five months, where formal talks are in the offing.
My Lords, will the Minister accept from me that, while those of us from Northern Ireland fully accept the reason for the Answer that he has made public this morning, there is a growing cynicism among the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, who see their health service, schools and social amenities—a wide field of activity in Northern Ireland—suffering day by day and night by night? That cynicism is largely based on bland statements that efforts are being made to fill the vacuum. I know that there is intent in the Government to be seen to be doing everything possible to fill the vacuum, and I accept that there are difficulties with the local parties. However, I urge the Minister to convey what many of us are saying in the Chamber: the frustration in the community at large is extremely dangerous at this time given the unrest leading up to Brexit.
I can understand the frustration expressed by the noble and right reverend Lord, and I am sure that he expresses it on behalf of the whole of Northern Ireland and indeed this side of the Irish Sea. We all want to make progress. However, as I say, today there is a chink of light. The Secretary of State has been clear with the political parties and the House that she has decided to extend the period for Executive formation only because she has seen some clear progress towards restoring devolution. So the willingness is there, and the Secretary of State’s engagement with the parties over the last weeks have given her enough reassurance that we can see productive talks going forward.
My Lords, I associate myself with every word that my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen said, and with the comments of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. This is a dire and serious situation, from the very serious problem of waiting lists for children in the National Health Service in Northern Ireland, right the way through to the lack of a functioning Assembly and Executive, at a time of great crisis in Northern Ireland. It is probably the most serious crisis it has faced in many a long year—and that is saying something.
I want to ask specifically about the date of 25 August that I think the Minister mentioned. Parliament will not be sitting, so I find it an odd date. I stress to the Minister, and through him to the Government and the Prime Minister, that, as many of us have said, including my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, this problem will not be cracked without the Prime Minister’s personal engagement, not just flying in for an odd hour here or there but convening people together in a conference—if necessary, going overnight, and again—until the problem is cracked. There are solutions to these issues of the Irish language and other questions; attention needs to be focused in a concentrated and personal way, and I am afraid that it is not.
I know that the Secretary of State and the Government are very aware of the date of 25 August, which the noble Lord raised. We want to give the fullest possible time for the talks to have the best chance of success. The Secretary of State is aware of that time, and it is during the Recess, but there will be every chance for the next stages to happen well in advance of that, so that is fine. On the Prime Minister’s role, it must be made absolutely clear again that she is keeping in very close contact with what is going on and, as I said earlier, she has been talking regularly to all five main parties.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his expression of sympathy for the families of Lauren, Morgan and Connor, the young people who tragically died in Cookstown. It is important that the PSNI fully investigates the circumstances, and we trust that those who have been injured will recover and that the young people impacted by this tragedy are given appropriate counselling. The present situation, in which major decisions impacting the lives of the people of Northern Ireland are not being taken, is totally unacceptable. Will the Minister therefore assure the House that every effort will be taken to restore devolved government, and that the Assembly will no longer be held to ransom because of unreasonable red lines set by one party—Sinn Féin?
I can only repeat what I said earlier, which is that the Secretary of State and the Government, very much including the Prime Minister, want to see the Assembly up and running. That is an absolute priority and every effort is being made to achieve that. The noble Lord makes a very good point.