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Northern Ireland Update

Volume 797: debated on Monday 29 April 2019


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

“Mr Speaker, with permission I wish to make a Statement about the political process in Northern Ireland. Last week I came to this House and delivered a Statement in the aftermath of the sickening attack that led to the death of Lyra McKee. The day after, both the Prime Minister and I attended her funeral at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast along with political leaders from across Northern Ireland and Ireland.

It was, as many right honourable and honourable Members will be aware, an incredibly emotional and touching event where I heard moving and powerful testimonies from Lyra’s family and members of the community. That was a day to grieve and a day to reflect on a brilliant young life that was cut down by terrorism. All of us heard a clear message that day from inside the cathedral from the powerful testimony of Father Magill, from the streets of Creggan and Londonderry and from Northern Ireland’s political leaders: no more—no more violence, no more division and no more delay. Northern Ireland’s political leaders must come together now and work together to stand firm against those who oppose peace and the political process and work to build a genuinely shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Lyra symbolised the new Northern Ireland and her tragic death cannot be in vain. All of us must take inspiration from what Lyra achieved in her life and work even harder to make Northern Ireland a brighter, more peaceful and prosperous place for everyone. As Secretary of State, I have always made clear that my absolute priority is to see the restoration of all the political institutions established by the Belfast agreement. The Belfast agreement has formed the bedrock of peace and progress here since it was reached just over 21 years ago. It must be upheld and it must be defended from those who would seek to undermine it. Northern Ireland needs its political leaders to stand together and work with each other now more than ever. That is why in Belfast last Friday I called for formal political talks to restore the Executive commencing on 7 May. Those talks will involve the UK Government, the five Northern Ireland political parties which are eligible to form an Executive and the Irish Government for matters on which they have responsibilities. They will be conducted in full accordance with the Belfast agreement and the well-established three-stranded approach to which this Government remain committed. There will also be a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on 8 May.

There is much to do and many challenges ahead. It is incumbent on all of us to do all that we can to make these talks a success. Northern Ireland needs its Government back up and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. From now until the start of talks, my team and I will be working with the parties on an intensive period of preparation for those talks.

Both the UK and Irish Governments have been clear that we will do everything in our power to make these talks a success, but we cannot do it alone. No Government can impose an agreement from the outside. We need Northern Ireland’s political leadership to do everything they can to ensure that we emerge with an agreement to restore the Executive and build a better future for the people of Northern Ireland. We have a narrow window in which genuine progress can be made and we must act now.

I hope that all Members of this House will appreciate that, to give these talks the best chance of success, there is a responsibility on all of us to give the parties some time and some space to talk. While I will of course seek to keep the House updated, I will not provide a running commentary on negotiations. However, I will be doing everything I can to give these talks the best possible chance of success. I know that all of us in this House and in the other place want to see these talks succeed.

This week has been a difficult time for us all. The murder of Lyra McKee was an attack not just on Lyra or our police service; it was an attack on us all. Since that sickening attack in Derry, Northern Ireland’s political leaders have shown great leadership in standing up together to reject violence, but now it is time for us to go further. The best possible way of showing those who oppose peace and democracy that their efforts are futile is for all the political institutions of the Belfast agreement to be fully restored and functioning, as was intended by those who reached that historic agreement 21 years ago. The stability and safety provided by the agreement has allowed Northern Ireland to thrive. Northern Ireland is now a leading destination for inward investment, unemployment is at a record low and employment at an all-time high.

Northern Ireland needs a devolved Government to allow for local decision-making, to continue to strengthen the economy and to build a united and prosperous community. I will do all I can to make that happen. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, political vacuums in Northern Ireland are often filled with violence, and the wicked murderers of Lyra McKee used the absence of the political institutions in Northern Ireland to maintain that the Good Friday agreement was dead—that it had failed. However, the death of a courageous young journalist and the admonition in the cathedral of Father Magill have rightly reminded politicians that progress now has to be made.

Therefore, on these Benches we welcome the Minister’s Statement and we wish the two Governments—who are, after all, the guarantors of the Good Friday agreement—and all the political parties in Northern Ireland well. However, there has to be a fresh commitment and a fresh determination, and different ways of negotiating and talking. I believe that there has to be an independent chair of the proceedings, and all-party round-table meetings involving not one or two parties but all the parties engaged with the Assembly, and there must be, when the time comes, proper ministerial involvement by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. None of those things has happened over the last months but now they must.

There must be no more part-time negotiations, no more telephone calls, no more complacency and no more throwing your hands in the air and saying, “Oh well, the parties won’t agree”. I assure your Lordships that those of us who were there 21 years ago—there are a number in this Chamber—did not agree originally, but they did in the end. Therefore, for the sake of generations of young people in Northern Ireland to come, they have to agree again, and I hope that the Minister will take these points back to the Secretary of State. Despite what the Minister said about there being no running commentary on the negotiations, it is very important that Parliament is frequently kept up to date on them as they take place.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which is extremely welcome. The fact that the Irish and British Governments have taken the initiative to move these talks forward is of course welcome, although way overdue and sadly driven by the tragic and disgraceful murder of a young journalist. There is no doubt that Father Martin Magill struck a chord when he asked why it had taken so long, and such an action, to bring this about. To what extent does the Minister feel that there is a public expectation among the people of Northern Ireland that their politicians now accept the responsibility, which they have abdicated for the last two years or more, to move these talks forward in a different, more constructive spirit?

The Alliance Party came forward just over a year ago with a number of proposals that are worth repeating because they seem relevant to the context. The first, alongside that of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, is the request that an independent facilitator or mediator—call it what we will—be appointed. Secondly, nothing should be ruled out; everything is on the table. There are issues, such as equal marriage and other social issues, which can be determined either at Westminster or in a devolved Assembly. There is the issue of the petition of concern, and the need to have in the background, perhaps, the reactivation the Assembly committees so that people can be engaged with each other day to day. These are not preconditions; there must be no preconditions. They are just issues that must be allowed to be discussed and explored.

In these circumstances, I ask the Minister whether the Government, while not wanting to put any restrictions on a new initiative, recognise that we have a limited time to reach a conclusion. We cannot wait until the dog days of summer before we reach that conclusion, and we should not allow the European elections or anything else to delay it. The sooner these talks start, and the more active they are, the better. I agree that a running commentary is not required, but good progress and an engagement with the people of Northern Ireland —as well as the politicians, so that they can be part of the dynamic—may put on the pressure that delivers a result, rather than another round of talks around the same subjects with the same negative result. Let us hope that this time there can be a positive outcome.

My Lords, I am sorry, but I say to the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, that his time will come.

I thank both speakers on the Opposition Benches for their confirmation and commitment. This is an opportunity. Out of darkness, let there be some light. It is important that we embrace that flickering flame to ensure that we can restore an Executive. There is no doubt, as is often said, that nature abhors a vacuum; so does peace. We saw last week—indeed, over many weeks—how, in the absence of functioning public servants in Northern Ireland, terrorists, gangsters and others who have no interest in peace or the well-being of the communities of Northern Ireland have far too often held sway on some of the streets.

In response to certain questions, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, is of course right; we need to think in a fresh way. There is no point pretending that the methods that we have deployed thus far have been adequate to deliver that which must be delivered. We must think, and behave, afresh to achieve that. I have said in the past that nothing can be ruled out. I include in that the idea of a facilitator or mediator, which needs to be actively considered; I have no doubt whatever of that.

I am also very conscious that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach must be part of this process. I do not believe there ever was telephone diplomacy in this, but I recognise that we now need the visible commitment of all who need to be active in these talks, as they begin to generate what I hope will be the momentum that takes them in the right direction.

I am very much aware that nothing can be off the table. There are a number of elements to the impasse which have bedevilled the various opportunities to bring about a functioning Assembly and a restored Executive. Each element will need to be considered carefully during the talks, and they must include all participants; there can be nobody left on the sidelines. All must now be active in this process.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, asked whether there was now a public expectation. It would be fair to say, for any of those here assembled who have spent time in Northern Ireland, that there has been a weariness with politicians of all parties—a certain fear that politicians were simply no longer able to deliver. There is now a public expectation, and rightly so. They have gone too long without a functioning Executive. I do not doubt that the people of Northern Ireland would like to move quickly beyond the constitutional considerations on to the bread-and-butter issues of health, welfare, education, roads, farming and everything else that needs to be addressed by a functioning Executive, drawn from an Assembly that represents the people of Northern Ireland who are affected by the very issues that we are discussing. I hope this talks process leads to the restoration of an Executive, and I hope it does so quickly.

My Lords, coming from Northern Ireland and speaking from my experience over the years of being heavily involved in attempts to bring peace and to support the political efforts based on the Good Friday agreement, I welcome much of what the Minister has said to the House. The dramatic reaction to the funeral service in St Anne’s Cathedral needs no enlargement from me, but I say to the Minister that, having presided over the years at numerous funerals of the victims of violence and being in contact with the families of those who have been murdered, I was not at all surprised at the reaction.

However, allied to that must be a new urgency from Her Majesty’s Government in recognising that there is a cynicism abroad in the Northern Ireland community at the failure of organised politics to bring about a solution to these problems, and that, unless that cynicism is addressed in a realistic way in these talks, we are doomed to further failure. So can we be assured that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be aware of all the facets of what she is undertaking, and that the full force of the British and Irish Governments in emphasising those particular shortcomings of the past will be fully realised for the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland?

My Lords, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, reminds us again that there have been far too many funerals in Northern Ireland, and that the passing of Lyra McKee represents but the latest in a tragic list of those who have lost their lives on the island of Ireland. I can give the noble and right reverend Lord the assurance that the two Governments will be active in their pursuit of an agreed settlement that restores an Assembly and a functioning Executive.

Let Lyra McKee not have died in vain. Let this moment be grasped by all the political parties. Whatever differences, obstacles and challenges there may be, they can and must be overcome. I can of course give the full assurance that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will in every way seek to move this matter forward. We now need to restore a functioning Executive. That would be a fitting but all too tragic tribute to the passing of that young journalist.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for bringing the Statement to this House but I have absolutely no faith in the ability of our present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to bring into effect those things that, despite the clichés in her Statement, she appears to promise. Like others, I was deeply saddened by the murder of Lyra McKee, but it is not new for those of us who have lived a lifetime in Northern Ireland. I have had fellow schoolmasters and my own pupils from my school murdered by the IRA.

The Secretary of State has made a vague promise without appearing to understand the difficulties that she faces in restoring a form of government to Northern Ireland. I have made it very clear that to a large extent I have given up hope; I believe that first and foremost we should have direct rule so that we could have, say, six to nine months’ stability out of which we could try to evolve a system whereby we could implement the things that we promised in the Belfast agreement in 1998.

The major problem—I hope the Minister will take on board this point—is that we have allowed outside interference, and not just from the Taoiseach, who suddenly arrived on the scene and promised problems of violence that we would have on the border, whatever happened with Brexit. Today, we have had the leader of Fianna Fáil, who would advocate—

I apologise but, after all these years, noble Lords will understand my deep concern. When will the Secretary of State have the courage to consult those of us who were involved in the 1998 Belfast agreement? We are boycotted, are we not? What improvement can we have on that scenario?

My Lords, I understand the passion that the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, brings to this issue. I understand very well the challenges he must have experienced as a schoolmaster, seeing his pupils lost in such a tragic cause. The Secretary of State has sought to reach out to Members of your Lordships’ House on a number of occasions and will continue to do so. It is important that the experience which rests in these hallowed Chambers is not dismissed lightly; there is a wealth of knowledge that can be brought into the discussions. I will strongly encourage my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to draw on the wealth of knowledge that noble Lords represent.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate just how much ordinary civil society is suffering because there is no Executive in Northern Ireland? An example of that is the charity that Lyra McKee was involved with, which I think is called Headliners. It works in troubled areas, particularly in this country, and in Northern Ireland, with young people across the divide. It works with them on journalism skills in every sense—not necessarily to make them journalists but to build their confidence through telling stories about their communities, their lives and so on. Lyra McKee was involved with it from the age of 13 onwards and became a trustee. That charity faces closure in Northern Ireland because of funding and because there is no Executive to take decisions. The decision is outside the competence of officials. That is one civil society organisation, and because the Executive have not worked for so long, lots of other organisations face real challenges. It is that sort of vacuum, as well as the political vacuum, that is really bringing trouble to folk who just want to get on with a decent, ordinary life. That is the real challenge for the Government.

The noble Baroness draws attention to a sad state of affairs in Northern Ireland—namely, that the everyday business of government has almost fallen by the wayside, in so far as we have reached the point, so many years now after the collapse of the previous Executive, that we cannot with confidence or certainty maintain that which has gone before. That includes funding across a whole range of charitable operations and funding aspects of education, welfare and beyond. There is a whole range of aspects, which is why the importance of restoring an Executive has always been critical. The United Kingdom Government remain committed to good governance in Northern Ireland, but that is not enough. This is an opportunity to bring together the parties in Northern Ireland to restore a sustainable, functioning Executive to address the very issues that the noble Baroness raises. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a lot better than they have had.

My Lords, I suggest to my noble friend, if we are really going to sustain the momentum that has been created, that when these talks begin they do so not in rooms but that the Assembly that has been elected is summoned to Stormont and that not only the Secretary of State but the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are there to speak to the Members of the Assembly to stress their total commitment and dedication to the restoration of devolved government, and to challenge the Members of the Assembly to respond positively to it.

My noble friend Lord Cormack was short, sharp and very much to the point. We need to ensure that this is not a process that remains solely behind closed doors. It must involve all the Members of the Assembly, who bring their knowledge to the process. There can be nobody left behind. I include in that civil society and local government. Each must now play their part in this process to make sure that we deliver a sustainable Executive that can hit the ground running and restore the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland in politicians full stop.

My Lords, naturally I welcome any process and I have complained bitterly that there has not been one, but, in a bizarre twist, four of the party leaders at Stormont, including the leaders of the SDLP and the Alliance Party, are standing as candidates in the European elections in parallel with this process. I thought that we had dealt with double jobbing, but it would appear that we have not.

The Statement referred to the Belfast agreement. People are saying how wonderful it is and how much it needs be defended, but what is not recognised is that the Belfast agreement we are talking about is not the one that we negotiated and which got 71.2% of the people to support it. It was severely damaged in 2006. When the legislation went through this House, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, who were on the opposition Benches at that time, fiercely opposed it because they realised that the core of it—the partnership model at the centre—was hollowed out to facilitate the two parties that did not negotiate the agreement. That means we should go back to factory settings and deal with the agreement we made. Last year, the Secretary of State said to the House of Commons:

“Clearly, the changes made to the Belfast agreement in the 2007 St Andrews agreement have made the situation we have found ourselves in for the past 19 months more likely”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/18; col. 354.]

Does the Minister agree?

My Lords, there is no question that the Belfast agreement remains the cornerstone of our approach. There is also no doubt that it has undergone evolution. In this process of talks, nothing can be taken off the table. All aspects must be available for consideration. Whether that ultimately results in a restoration of factory settings I suspect time will tell, but it will be important to ensure that we have the key aspect out of these talks: a sustainable Executive that can deliver and not be brought down by either noises off or any one political party.

I am also aware that the European elections, with which the noble Lord began his question and which we perhaps had not anticipated, are seemingly fast approaching. The landscape in Northern Ireland between now and the end of the year has a number of serious obstacles that we must navigate around. This is but one of them. I recognise that there will be challenges as the political parties seek to operate normal politics while involved in the extraordinary politics required to deliver an Executive.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made a specific recommendation with regard to the location of the talks and the conditions under which they would take place. Can the Minister take away his proposition and seriously consider it?

My noble friend made reference to the end of the year for the completion of discussions. Did we not have a deadline at the end of August? Secondly, time and again my noble friend has been asked about an independent facilitator—by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and others—and time and again he has said “It will be considered”. When? How? By whom?

The noble Lord is right to remind us that we are operating within what is the second window of the Executive formation extension period, which ends in August. Depending on circumstances, that may need to be revisited. I do not think a deadline at that point should in any way be a curtailment if progress is being made; that would be foolhardy.

The final points raised, about an independent facilitator, are being actively considered. They will need to be actively considered by all participants, because there is a range of views on this. Much as I would like to agree with noble Lords here that it is a unanimously popular and supported aspect, it is not. There are political parties which do not share that view, and so we need to ensure that all are brought on board, that all recognise the value and worth of such an individual, and that the individual is able to function—if indeed there is an agreement to move forward in that direction. I believe that Senator George Mitchell delivered a great deal to the previous discussions, and I recognise the value of such an individual in any future discussions.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, may have made this point on an earlier occasion. Is there any reason why the committees of the Assembly could not be brought together, so that at least there is a voice for politicians—or for local people, through those politicians—to let their views be heard? Would that not be salutary?

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, raises an important point, which is to ensure that there are voices from across the political spectrum. Whether the forums themselves are those committee structures—or indeed other structures—remains to be determined by those participants, but at heart I agree completely with what he is saying. There needs to be that representative element across the political spectrum and across the themes which need to be discussed. There can be particular themes discussed in closed rooms where only certain people are privy to the discussion. There also needs to be openness and transparency, and the political strata in Northern Ireland at all levels—from local government, right the way through—need to be involved in this difficult process.

I am sorry for coming back again to the Minister, but he did say that everything is on the table. Just be very careful. Everything is not on the table. If we start opening up the whole constitutional question, I do not know where we will be. Do not forget that we had a referendum on that. People have been telling us that, because 52% of the people voted a certain way in a referendum, it has to be implemented. We had 71.2% vote for that referendum in 1998, and they were not consulted—and nor were the people who negotiated that agreement consulted—when it was changed behind our backs. Be careful about the language, because if we open up the whole constitutional Pandora’s box, I do not know where we will end up.

The noble Lord makes an important point about everything being on the table. I think we can probably agree that there is a table, and that table must represent the three-stranded approach. We need to recognise the importance of the achievements of the Belfast agreement in bringing together the structures whereby we can move these matters forward, but it is also important to recognise that at heart we need to deliver a sustainable Executive which can deliver—that must be the outcome all aspire toward. I hope that using that three-stranded approach, and the various strands which must be woven into those three strands later, will help us move towards that outcome.