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Northern Ireland: Inter-party Talks

Volume 798: debated on Thursday 20 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in the inter-party talks in Northern Ireland.

We are now six weeks into talks aimed at restoring power-sharing, devolved government. The issues on which the parties are focusing include language, identity and sustainability. These are complex and sensitive matters, but the parties have approached them in a spirit of engagement and with a willingness to find solutions. However, there remain significant gaps between the parties that still need to be bridged if we are to secure an agreement.

Is it not the case that none of the parties in Northern Ireland is, at the moment, expressing optimism about the talks? A few days ago, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party said:

“It’s time to get the political leaders together for some hard political graft”.

Why on earth has this not happened already? Is it because Sinn Féin is once again putting forward impossible demands, instead of negotiating constructively?

While the impasse drags on and on, will the Government now get on and provide compensation for the victims of institutional child sex abuse in Northern Ireland? The Northern Ireland parties are united on this issue and the Northern Ireland Office’s inaction, in defiance of their wishes, is a complete disgrace.

My noble friend raises two points. On the first, it is important to strike the right language. This is a positive time in the talks; I believe that progress is being made. It would be premature to say that we are at the final moment, but right now the conversations are being conducted in the most positive language that we have heard in some time. I answered a Question on institutional abuse last week. I note again that a number of issues need to be resolved, as a result of matters raised by the parties themselves. Once these have been examined, analysed and converted into the next step, progress will be made.

My Lords, are the Government not in a hopelessly impossible dilemma? On one hand, they are supposed to be keeping the ring at a time when Northern Ireland does not have a Government. On the other, they are propped up by a small group of pro-Brexit Ulster unionists, even though Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain. Therefore, is the loss of unity of the United Kingdom one of the many aspects of the catastrophe that Brexit is likely to impose on this country?

My answer is categorically no. Unity is not in question; unity is not in doubt. Matters in Northern Ireland must be resolved by the parties in Northern Ireland. Only they can reach the consensus required to deliver a sustainable Executive.

Does the House recognise that the upturn in support for the Alliance Party in the recent elections demonstrates that there is a mood in Northern Ireland for reconciliation and compromise, to which the political parties need to respond? In what way will be the Government be prepared to ensure that these talks continue until a conclusion is reached, bringing in outside agencies if necessary, and to legislate in this place if that helps to take pressure off some of the difficult issues? These things can all bring a solution and the people of Northern Ireland have expressed a wish to get a result.

No stone will be left unturned in the effort to secure a restored Executive. The talks going on now are conducted in the most positive of times. It is important that, during this period, we make hay while the sun shines.

My Lords, one thing delaying progress in these talks is uncertainty about the outcome of the judge-led inquiry into the renewable heating scandal. Is the Minister in a position to give any information on when the judge will finally report? All parties are waiting to see what the fallout will be before they commit themselves further in the talks process.

The noble Lord raises a question to which I do not have the answer, but when I have it I will ensure that he and the rest of the House know exactly when the report will be published.

My Lords, we have repeatedly raised two points in your Lordships’ House. First, could we not have the Assembly summoned? There is nothing to prevent the Assembly meeting without an Executive. My noble friend Lord Trimble has raised this on a number of occasions. Secondly, could we please have some progress on the appointment of a so-called facilitator? It has gone on for month after month. I pay tribute to my noble friend, but speed is of the essence and we are not seeing any speed.

My noble friend raises points he has raised in the past. It is important to stress that we are witnessing, I hope, a progressive step, out of which will emerge resolution of the issues that both he and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland passionately care about.

My Lords, we all want talks re-established at Stormont in the hope that the political parties in Northern Ireland can come to an agreement that allows the Assembly and the Executive to get up and running. But does the Minister agree that any agreement reached at the talks at Stormont must be balanced and fair, so that both communities—every community—can buy in and take ownership of that agreement? We cannot have a situation where one side takes over.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it will be a shameful betrayal of the fine memory of Lyra McKee if the parties—both the DUP and Sinn Féin—do not bear in mind what she stood for and reach an agreement? In facilitating that, does he agree that the personal involvement of the next Prime Minister, whoever that is, is critical, as my noble friend Lord Murphy, the Labour Leader and I have repeatedly urged? He must get directly involved and convene a summit, because that is sometimes the only way to crack these problems.

The noble Lord is right to raise the sad death of Lyra McKee. I think that has added momentum and impetus to the current talks and it would be a betrayal of all she stood for if we do not finally secure a restored Executive. I can assure the noble Lord that the Prime Minister has taken an active interest and even last night was in direct contact with the Taoiseach to discuss these matters and give, as best we can, a favourable momentum to the ongoing talks.

I thank the Minister for referring to the Prime Minister. I have to say that this week has not been an encouraging one for the NIO. It started with the NIO trying to hold an event that all MLAs refused to attend. It moved on to rumours that vital talks are to be paused over the summer, and at the last count we had four possible Conservative Prime Ministers who all think that no deal is an acceptable outcome, given the implications for Northern Ireland. It is essential that the Government engage better, the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, in his Question. The Minister told us that the Prime Minister had a conversation with the Taoiseach last night. How many times has the current Prime Minister met with all the Northern Ireland political parties? Will the Minister commit to doing everything he can to ensure that the next Prime Minister meets every party from Northern Ireland as soon as possible after he enters No. 10?

The noble Baroness raises several points. The important thing to stress is that the resolution of this issue rests not in London but in Belfast between those parties. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have sought, by their various offices, to engage directly with that. As to the future Prime Minister, I do not know whether he will ask my advice, but I will be very happy to give it to him.