Motion to Approve
My Lords, this Government are committed to the Belfast agreement. As I have said on many occasions, restoring a power-sharing Executive remains our key priority in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland needs the fully functioning political institutions of the Belfast agreement and its successors. That being said, in the absence of devolved government, the UK Government continue to have a responsibility to ensure good governance in Northern Ireland and that public confidence is maintained.
In November last year, legislation was brought forward, which among other measures addressed the need for urgent appointments to be made to a number of public bodies. At the time, the Secretary of State gave a commitment to make further appointments that may arise in the absence of an Executive. A statutory instrument was subsequently approved by the House in February 2019 which added six further offices to the 2018 Act. This new instrument specifies further critical offices to be added.
In preparing this instrument, my officials have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Civil Service to identify those appointments that will arise between now and the end of the year. This instrument would add to the list in Section 5 of the Act, thereby enabling the Secretary of State—as the relevant UK Minister—to exercise Northern Ireland Ministers’ appointment functions in relation to the following offices: the board of the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, the board of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, the board of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company or Translink, the Drainage Council for Northern Ireland, the Agricultural Wages Board for Northern Ireland, the board of National Museums Northern Ireland, the Historic Buildings Council for Northern Ireland and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The instrument would also enable the Lord Chancellor to make Queen’s Counsel appointments. These are necessary and time-critical and, on that basis, I beg to move.
My Lords, all our debates, such as this one on the Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointment Functions) (No. 2) Regulations, are in the context of the continuing absence, as the Minister acknowledged at the start, of an Assembly and the Executive. Although he has repeated his determination to get it up and running and we support him in that object, the increasing and alarming prospect is, instead, of a calamitous no-deal Brexit. In my view, that will lead inevitably to direct rule, not least to provide the necessary civil contingency and security powers which the civil servants currently administering Northern Ireland simply do not possess. That is shown by this regulation. They do not have the power, without us passing this secondary legislation, to make these appointments; they are certainly not going to have the power to deal with problems around the border of the security and civil contingency kind. Indeed, I heard the former Deputy Prime Minister David Lidington say recently on the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme that there would have to be direct rule in advance of 31 October in order for Northern Ireland to function properly. In their own small way, these regulations are a dress rehearsal.
I believe that direct rule would be little short of disastrous for Northern Ireland and the progress that has been made since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. One of the great achievements of that agreement was to dilute, if not completely remove, the toxicity of identity politics in Northern Ireland. It also helped cement relations between the UK and Ireland. Citizens of Northern Ireland could be Irish or British or increasingly Northern Irish as they chose and the invisible nature of the border was central to that, particularly for nationalists and, above all, for republicans. That is changing and a DUP-backed right-wing British Government exercising direct rule may not take us back to the violence of the past—I certainly hope not—but it will immeasurably damage the prospects for long-term stability and reconciliation. The notion that this can be a cosy domestic arrangement between the DUP and the Government is in itself absurd.
Effectively, you have one party out of all the parties in Northern Ireland, that does not command a majority percentage of the votes, wagging the tail of the Government in a direct rule context. If direct rule has to happen—and that is a terrible calamity in itself—then under the Good Friday agreement the Irish Government must be constantly consulted on all major policy decisions and be seen to be consulted. Perhaps the Minister can confirm whether the appointments made under these regulations will be done with full consultation with the Irish Government. The alternative with the DUP in alliance with the Government would be to undermine the Good Friday/Belfast agreement and all the progress that has been made since. After painstakingly moving to a place where both communities felt more equal, this alliance suggests that one community—or perhaps one part of one community—again has the advantage over the other.
The Good Friday agreement is an international treaty and under it the Irish Government must be consulted through the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference or BIIGC. A formal institution of the agreement, just like the others, it must meet regularly and our Government must no longer convey the reticence and nervousness they showed around their few meetings since the summer of 2018. I hope the Minister will take that point back. They must not pander to one party in Northern Ireland which does not like this institution. Instead, they must display the “rigorous impartiality” the agreement requires. I say that not just as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who had to be an “honest broker” to get Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness—bitter old enemies—into power together to govern Northern Ireland jointly. The former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major said the British Government had to be an honest broker to take the peace process forward and bring everybody together. They no longer are.
I say this not to make a political point but very seriously as the Secretary of State through the last period of direct rule in the 2000s. I thought I was the last direct rule Secretary of State and said so on the record. How wrong it looks I was. It was a difficult and delicate time during which we all learned that once you go into direct rule it is very hard to come back out of it. To do otherwise would put at risk the progress that has been made since the parties and the two Governments came together in that historic agreement in 1998. I say to my friends in the DUP—and I have lots of friends in the DUP—who say that they would welcome direct rule, as I heard Jeffrey Donaldson say, again on the “Today” programme recently, they need to be careful what they wish for. They may well find that English nationalists—that is who we seem to have in power under Boris Johnson at the moment—are no more sympathetic to their cause than Irish nationalists in the long term. They must know that the proof of this came earlier this year when the then Back-Bench MPs, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab—now in the Cabinet—among others, broke personal promises to the DUP and voted for Theresa May’s Brexit deal the third time it was put to the other place. As the now Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg draped himself over the Front Bench as if he were back in the common room at Eton, you can be sure that he was not thinking about the impact of his kamikaze Brexit on sheep farmers in Fermanagh.
It is my view there is no such thing as a good Brexit, either economically or politically, for the people of Northern Ireland. However, a no-deal Brexit threatens everything that successive British Governments worked for up until the Cameron Administration foolishly decided to revert to the hands-off policy that helped get us into this catastrophic mess in the first place. I call on the Government to redouble their efforts to restore devolution, but twice of very little is not enough. It will take much more than that but the first essential step is to stop a no-deal Brexit before it is too late. I hope that the noble Lord will confirm that he will give due credence to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in the event of direct rule and that regulations such as this will be consulted on through that process, and that the appointments he is going to make under these regulations will also be consulted on to ensure that there is buy in and cross-community support.
My Lords, the appointments being added to the list include such things as the Drainage Council for Northern Ireland. If the noble Lord, Lord Hain, is seriously saying that the Irish Government need to be consulted about that, that amounts to joint authority. It is not a requirement of any of the treaties or the 1998 Act. The two Governments can consult at a council that can meet periodically. That is fair enough but we must be well aware of the three-stranded process. Its integrity is the core of the agreement.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Hain, in expressing concern about the direction of travel. I had been given the impression that talks were going at white-hot pace during the summer. but that is not the case. If my information is correct, the last all-party meeting was on 5 July, which was before we left this place for the summer. I stand to be corrected, and if the Minister does so I will be more than happy to withdraw that point, but that is my understanding. There have been one or two relatively casual meetings of working parties on programmes for government and so on, but certainly in the last two weeks of August there was one interaction in one week and one in the other.
It is true that there have been some bilateral talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin but I repeat that there is no proper process, although I stand to be corrected on that also by the Minister. The two meetings on 5 July and 9 September are sufficient evidence that there is a lack of urgency, drive and ambition. Although I have no particular issues with any of these appointments—I do with some of the recent appointments but that will come up in a later debate—I say to colleagues that devolution will not be restored unless there is a proper process that is organised, timetabled and properly run. This ad hoc approach—we will meet now; we will meet again; maybe we will, maybe we will not—will not deliver. During our debates before the recess on the Executive restoration Bill, a number of us said that some of the proposals in that legislation would not assist the process of restoring the Executive, and so it has proved. We are now closing up shop until the middle of October but there are two other things that need to be borne in mind.
Unusually, the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland is to be challenged for her position in November. I do not believe that Sinn Féin has the remotest intention of doing anything until Brexit is resolved, and certainly I cannot see that happening when its leader in Northern Ireland is facing a challenge from outside. Therefore, it looks as though we will arrive at the third anniversary of Stormont being closed in January, with no Government and so on.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, referred to the wider issues of direct rule. Personally, I do not have a preference for direct rule. We worked hard to get Stormont going again and to get devolution, and the fact that people have messed it up is another matter. However, there is one issue which I keep drawing to the House’s attention. I ask the Minister, with his right honourable friend the Secretary of State, to consider our health service, which is in dire straits.
There are 7,500 vacancies in the health service in Northern Ireland for 3% of the UK’s population. Noble Lords can do the maths. That goes for nurses and doctors and applies right across the whole card. Our system has been kept going by locums—people brought in by agencies at enormous expense. One person working on a ward at night will be from an agency on X amount of money and one will be from the regular health service staff on Y amount of money, which is far less. It is unfair and unreasonable. Naturally enough, nurses are going to these banks and agencies and are being brought in as locums. Some of them are flown over from Newcastle upon Tyne and other locations. They are perfectly good people but their flights, accommodation and food have to be paid for, and of course they come into a ward and do not know anybody. This is becoming a humanitarian crisis.
With a new Session of Parliament coming up, I have asked the Public Bill Office to prepare a Bill for me, which I hope to put into the ballot. I remind noble Lords that in the last three ballots I got positions one, one and five, and I am hoping to improve on that. The Bill would transfer health, social services and public safety powers from Stormont to here, and it would have a sunset clause whereby immediately upon the establishment of the Executive those powers would revert. We did that some years ago with social security when there was a disagreement at Stormont and those powers were returned. I appeal to the Minister: the waiting lists have become absolutely ridiculous. Professor Deirdre Heenan of Ulster University was part of a Nuffield Trust study that a few weeks ago produced sobering figures, to say the least. People are hurting and I think that lives are being lost while we fiddle around with this issue. If the best effort is a meeting of the leaders of all parties on 5 July when we are in the middle of all this, there is something radically wrong. If I have missed the boat and secret talks that I am unaware of have been going on somewhere, I will be glad to hear that, but I suspect that I am not very far wrong.
Therefore, I say to the Minister that I do not have any particular difficulty with the appointments that we are talking about, but if we can bring legislation—even though this is secondary legislation—before this House to appoint the chairman of the Drainage Council, why can we not do something about the suffering of people in the health service and the fact that that service is being allowed to go down the drain? The spending priorities set by the outgoing Executive are five or six years old and no longer match the current needs and requirements of our community. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister to speak to his right honourable colleague in the other place and to seriously consider this matter. I do not want to see direct rule a day earlier than the noble Lord, Lord Hain, does—I have the same reservations—but this is a humanitarian issue; it is a matter of life and death. This Parliament has a responsibility to people for their health and safety but that is not being exercised.
My Lords, I have listened with great care and interest to the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Empey. If either noble Lord has any magical formula to restore Stormont, I will certainly be very glad to hear it. However, there seems to be no magical formula because Sinn Féin, with the collaboration of this House, has been handed the keys of Stormont.
Let us make no mistake: same-sex marriage and abortion, as debated and legislated for recently, were two of the key demands of Sinn Féin. This House agreed to them, and if Stormont were not returned by 21 October, the legislation would be enacted. This House and the Government were warned that, in so doing, they were keeping the doors of Stormont closed because Sinn Féin has no reason to allow them to open. If Stormont returns, these issues can be debated. I know that on abortion there is a genuine desire across the political divide to see the changes in the legislation that came before the other House and this House. Rather than blame everyone else, this House has to accept part of the blame because it handed to Sinn Féin the reason for not returning to Stormont. It is therefore not good enough for people to do a pilot Act, wash their hands and suggest that the parties in Northern Ireland are responsible for the present hiatus.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, mentioned and warned about the DUP being in cahoots with this Government, influencing and collaborating with them. I remind the noble Lord that the leader of his party collaborated with Sinn Féin—the IRA Army Council—when they were in the midst of terrorist activity, against honourable Members of this House and others in our friend and family circles who were murdered and injured. To suggest that there is somehow a great danger in the Government and the Democratic Unionist Party working together and not see the danger—what the people of Northern Ireland witnessed in their darkest days—of the then Government collaborating with Sinn Féin was certainly very hard for any democrat to take.
It certainly does not go well for some noble Lords in this House to accept what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, is saying.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, with whom I worked very closely in the past as Secretary of State, as he will acknowledge. I understand the specific point he has just made. I was simply making the point that the British Government have to be an honest broker to do this job properly. I would make the same point if it were the UUP or the SDLP—if it had any representation any more—in an alliance with the Government. You cannot be an honest broker if your majority depends on one particular party. That is the point I was making—not an anti-DUP point but one about an honest broker.
I thank the noble Lord for his remarks. However, I cannot see how this House—never mind the Government—was an honest broker when it handed two of Sinn Féin’s major demands to it on a plate to ensure that the doors of Stormont would remain closed until after the deadline in October. These two major social issues were the responsibility of the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. This was accepted by all, even the courts.
I certainly want to see the return of devolved government in Northern Ireland. However, I ask the Minister to confirm that the appointments to the various bodies being discussed are internal matters for the people of Northern Ireland and the Government of the United Kingdom and that the internal affairs of Northern Ireland are therefore not the responsibility of the Irish Republic. I have no doubt whatever that there should be the closest co-operation between Her Majesty’s Government and the Government of the Irish Republic—I welcome it—but they should not interfere in the internal matters of the people of Northern Ireland.
I would like to say a little bit about this debate. First, I very much agree with what my noble friend Lord Hain said. I do not need to repeat it.
I have enormous sympathy with the campaigning for the health service of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. It is a really crucial issue. I give him full credit for having raised it on numerous occasions. I am not sure that the matter is not too urgent for a Private Member’s Bill in the next Session—that is the only thing I would say. It is such an important point and a sign of the political vacuum in Northern Ireland.
I turn to the noble Lord, Lord McCrea. We will have a chance to talk a bit about abortion in a later debate this evening. He says that something has been handed to Sinn Féin on a plate, but it took years before Sinn Féin came around to supporting abortion. It is a fairly recent thing. I think it did it only because it realised that public opinion in the Republic was in favour of it. I certainly never saw abortion as an issue that the Sinn Féin people from Northern Ireland were keen on. I used to talk to them about it when they came here for their many lobbying activities. I do not think it is quite as the noble Lord said, but I agree that its policy then changed and it is now in favour of abortion.
I am not sure how many red lines there were. Sinn Féin must be asked somewhere else to speak for itself, I suppose. It is not for me to try to quote what I thought was wrong with its policy. All I am saying is that my sincere understanding was that it was not keen on abortion over a period of years. I used to say to the Sinn Féin people who came over, “What about your party being as progressive as it claims to be and taking a stand on abortion?”, and they did not. It has been only a fairly recent thing, since the Irish referendum got momentum. I am not sure how relevant that is to the debate here now.
We of course accept the need for these appointments to take place and regret the necessity of it being done in this way. I ask a question of the Minister which has been referred to recently. My memory of when I was a junior Minister there many years ago—it was a long time ago—was that the Government in Dublin could put forward their suggested people to be considered for public appointments in Northern Ireland. It did not mean that we took notice of it or appointed the people, but it was simply one other contribution to the mix of possible candidates we looked at for particular jobs. I wonder whether that is still the case.
Are we simply rubber-stamping reappointments of people already in posts, or are there some new appointments listed in these regulations? If so, is there an appraisal process—in other words, an equal opportunities system for interviewing and appointing people—if we are not reappointing people who would normally expect to have a second term in office?
Some of these bodies are quite important. I had involvement with several of them in my time as a Minister. I was particularly interested in the Historic Buildings Council. If I may digress slightly from the main point here, when I got to Northern Ireland, there was a mentality of, “Get rid of these old buildings. Let’s just bulldoze them away and put up new ones”. This was a long time ago and I hope that I am totally out of date. I think that that the people who argued like that—some of them did—did a total disservice to Northern Ireland. It was a job to resist the pressure to get rid of listed buildings because people said, “We’ve got to do that. They’re standing in the way of progress”. For people who support historic buildings, the skill is to say, “We’d better be clever and find a proper use for historic buildings so that they can be maintained in their historic beauty and yet are economically viable in their new situation”.
I regard some of these appointments as pretty important. I am very concerned that the people in these positions—or who will fill them, if they are new appointments—will have a real commitment to historic buildings and the other areas we are debating.
Who gets these key jobs is very important. It is so regrettable that this is where we are. It is such a massive regret that we have not been able to move forward. If I have a chance in the next debate, I would like to repeat some of the things we have said in the past about how we might move forward. In this House, saying something twice is tenable over six months but probably not in one evening. I will leave it at that.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this statutory instrument. As we have seen, with the lack of any operational Executive in Northern Ireland for the last two years, it is now necessary for Ministers here to make those key appointments to offices in Stormont and to make strategic legislative interventions to ensure good governance once again in Northern Ireland; this should have been exercised by the Executive themselves and we hope it will be again as soon as possible.
At this point, I make note of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, about the health service in Northern Ireland. It is indeed quite shocking that so many vacancies exist; we really must do something to help the situation. We have been here before. Back in February we approved the appointment functions of several key offices: the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland; the Commissioner for Children and Young People for Northern Ireland; member of the Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland; member, chair or vice-chair of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, et cetera. This statutory instrument adds nine other offices to those in which the appointment functions of the Northern Ireland Minister can now be exercised by the relevant UK Minister.
My noble friend Lord Bruce of Bennachie, who is unable to be present in your Lordships’ House this evening, and who spoke on these matters at the time, said that,
“effectively we are going on and on in this limbo of democratic nihilism … having to institute ad hoc measures as and when necessary to fill the gap in the absence of real political initiatives”.
He asked what practical steps the Government would take to ensure that we would not get to the end of August without having reached a position where functioning decision-making by the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland could return. He added that,
“a Secretary of State in a UK Government who are propped up by a hard-line unionist party in Northern Ireland is likely to find the perception of her office somewhat compromised … is it not time to find some independent authority that might bring parties together and start to identify what it would take to break the deadlock and get things back to normal?”
“what were the criteria that made these urgent, and what other appointments are coming down the track that may require us to be back here in the very near future?”
Now we know. He continued by asking,
“what assurances can we have that there is any reasonable momentum to try to ensure that we get the political process back?”
The Minister, in response, told the House that,
“the appointments have been identified by the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The principal criterion for that identification was obviously timing”.
He said that on Friday 15 February, all the parties had gathered together in Northern Ireland for the first time in more than a year, in,
“an attempt to move things forward in a fashion which would ultimately lead to the creation of a sustainable Executive”.—[Official Report, 18/2/19; cols. 2041-45.]
Yet here we are again. The Government’s Brexit chaos is constantly distracting from the real issues affecting citizens across the UK, and the formation of a Northern Ireland Executive is crucial to stability in the region. We are deeply concerned about the progress being made towards restoration and urge the Minister to do all he can to stress the urgency of this to the Prime Minister, who obviously has other things on his mind at the moment.
We will discuss these issues in more detail in the debate to come later today, but can the Minister give any update on the Government’s efforts to make progress on the restoration of an Executive in Northern Ireland? The last time an instrument under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 was deployed, my noble friend Lord Bruce asked the Government to think outside the box for solutions to the issues at hand. I echo this plea. Have there been any efforts to find an independent authority to try and bring the relevant parties together?
Finally, does the Minister foresee any further appointments being made in the near future? Is he confident that Parliament can prorogue without any outstanding matters to be addressed? We very reluctantly agree to this statutory instrument going forward.
My Lords, I want to speak only briefly as I hope to contribute to the later, main debate. I just want to take up the last point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond. Even had we had the so-called Conference Recess, we would have been sitting throughout this week, up to and including Thursday, which would have given us time for a whole day on Northern Ireland. Would that be too much when we have the ultimate responsibility in this Parliament during the continued and deeply regrettable absence of an Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland?
I believe it is wrong, indeed positively indecent, for this Parliament to abdicate its responsibilities this week. I also believe proroguing is wrong, because it not only takes away the week before the Conference Recess but takes away the Conference Recess itself, in a very special way. During a recess, Parliament can be recalled and Select Committees can sit. We are going into a state of suspended animation where it is virtually impossible to reassemble Parliament, other than in certain circumstances such as when there is a great national or international crisis; of course, many of us would argue that there is a great national crisis now. I am not in any sense directing one iota of criticism at my noble friend Lord Duncan, for whom I have enormous respect, but it is shameful that the Government are silencing Parliament on every issue for five weeks. I felt that I could not allow this debate to come to an end without saying that. I say it for one specific reason concerning Northern Ireland: the eloquent plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on the health service. It should not be beyond the capacity of the United Kingdom Parliament to call together perhaps a Joint Committee of both Houses—working with the committee that I had the honour of chairing for five years in another place—to put something in place that would alleviate at least some of the problems to which he referred.
I have become increasingly ashamed and embarrassed over the last few weeks; tonight does not lessen either my shame or my embarrassment.
My Lords, I will be brief but I want to say one or two things. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, extol the virtues of the Assembly. I am not going to say anything negative about it except, simply, that to date it has failed to provide a working Executive. I will say no more than that. Regarding what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has said, I find myself generally in agreement. Perhaps he has oversimplified things but, nevertheless, I know he is sincere in what he says in relation to the health service. Our health service is in dire straits. He does not exaggerate when he says that. Furthermore, our waiting lists are growing by the day. He also said that there could even be deaths as a result of the state of our health service.
We are a devolution party. We want devolution tomorrow. We have declared no red lines over its return. Any issues announced by any party can be discussed around the Stormont table and Assembly at any time. We have not said, “This can’t be discussed” or “That can’t be discussed”. We have said no such thing. Bring the Assembly back tomorrow and we will be there. I suspect that we would be the first through the doors, because we strongly believe in devolution as the best way forward for Northern Ireland. I ask the House to take cognisance of that.
We have heard from the Lib Dems the idea that the Conservative Party is in cahoots with a right-wing unionist party. Yet not that long ago those same Lib Dems were in cahoots with the Conservative Party—and we saw the disaster that that was. Some may point and throw stones, but those who live in glass houses should not throw stones, because they will discover that those stones will crash through their own glass house one day. My colleagues and I are a bit tired of taking lectures from a failed identity. Please restrain and refrain, and work with those of us who want devolution restored.
My Lords, this is a short debate and an important one. The Opposition will support the Government on the regulations, for obvious reasons, because appointments in Northern Ireland could not be made unless we did. But the Minister must be aware from the tone of the contributions made in the past hour that this debate is really about the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland.
In a sense this regulation is a precursor to direct rule, and we are drifting drearily and inexorably towards that. That would be calamitous. I was a direct rule Minister in Northern Ireland for five years. I enjoyed being there, and I enjoyed doing the job—but it was quite improper that I was doing it. If we have direct rule it will mean an English, Welsh or Scottish Minister, or a combination of such Ministers, taking decisions in Belfast for people who live in Northern Ireland. That is wrong, in every democratic sense.
The Minister’s new boss is apparently on resignation watch, according to the newspapers this morning, on the basis that he is—quite rightly—troubled by the fact that if there is a no-deal Brexit there will be, as my noble friend Lord Hain has said, no proper Government in Northern Ireland to deal with the enormous problems that would result from the catastrophe of no deal. We cannot leave the government of Northern Ireland to civil servants in those circumstances.
When the Minister and his Secretary of State go back to Belfast, can he not make it plain to the political parties in Northern Ireland that we are now in a situation totally different from the situation two months ago, and that urgency and intensity are necessary to bring about the restoration of the institutions, because of Brexit? Brexit dominates everything, and during the past three years the Brexit negotiations in Brussels and London have been skewered because there have not been parallel negotiations regarding Northern Ireland. It is my view that, had there really been a resolution of the problems in Northern Ireland, we could have dealt with the backstop in a very different way. If that had happened—if there had been an agreement in the Assembly and the Executive on what to do about Brexit—that would have helped towards the resolution of the whole Brexit crisis. But it was not to be.
There are, of course, those on the nationalist republican side in Northern Ireland who think that continuing chaos on Brexit and no deal would make a drift towards a united Ireland more likely. There are also those on the other side of the political community there who feel that, somehow or other, they become more British if we leave the European Union. I am not saying that those ideas are right or wrong; I am simply saying that they make the resolution of the problems there much more difficult.
As my noble friends Lord Hain and Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, have said, the talks have no shape: there is no structure. Every successful talks process in Northern Ireland has had a proper structure. But now there is none. Over the past six months we have begged the Government to find an independent arbiter or chair. We have begged them to ensure that all political parties sit round the same table to talk about the future of Northern Ireland. And of course, we have begged the Prime Ministers both of Ireland and of the United Kingdom to involve themselves much more intensely in the negotiations, as has happened historically over the last 30 years.
We are in a pretty awful mess—not just the mess of Brexit but the mess of what is how happening in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, and the new Secretary of State will be able to go back within days to Belfast and ensure, in their ministerial meetings, that there is a proper structure to the talks, to avoid the calamity that is on its way.
My Lords, I have stood here many times and my words are often repeated back to me—and with each passing few months the words become less and less tenable. I said earlier that we need to be very clear that good governance must be at the heart of our ambition for Northern Ireland. I do not think it would be unfair to say that all the parties need to recognise that we are at the very stage when the opportunities for delay are falling away.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, asked when the parties had last met as a gathering of five. The answer is: in the first week of August. I take no pride in saying that. I do not think that that is much better than the date that the noble Lord suggested. Since then, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been conducting bilateral discussions in an attempt to restore that Executive. One would think, I suppose, that if we cannot restore it now, when such vital issues are at stake, if, against that backdrop, those parties cannot recognise that now more than ever their voices would have been valuable—might, indeed have been instrumental—we do begin to wonder whether those parties will ever find a way through to restore an Executive. And if those parties cannot restore that Executive, which is so needed, for the very issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, other means must be found.
Let me take up some of the points raised by noble Lords today. We are talking about appointments that are necessary, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked how they are pulled together. There is indeed a mix of appointments—both reappointments and new appointments. I can now tell your Lordships how they break down. A competition is due to be carried out for the chair of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company. Open competitions have been carried out to identify suitable candidates for appointment to the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, to the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, to the Agricultural Wages Board for Northern Ireland, the Board of National Museums and the Historic Buildings Council. Competitions are due to be carried out to identify candidates for appointment to the Northern Ireland Drainage Council and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Every effort is made to ensure that the people concerned are qualified individuals. I am aware that there may be some controversies about some of the earlier appointments; we may come on to that in our later discussions. I am aware that some remarks were made about the Drainage Council. In truth that is a vital body, because it looks after waterways, sea wall defences and so on. I cannot think of anything more important, as we consider climate change.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, asked again about the role of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. I believe that if we do indeed find ourselves in the darker waters of direct rule, that will be a vital component. As for the involvement of the Irish Government with these appointments at present, the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord McCrea, are correct: these are domestic matters and would not involve that external consultation. However, I recognise the point they are making, which is about finding the greatest consensus in the communities of Northern Ireland; I believe that is exactly where they are coming from.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, has put forward a Bill to examine the NHS in Northern Ireland. He is right to raise that subject. Professor Deirdre Heenan has written a devasting report which is, for any noble Lord who takes the time to read it, very troubling, for obvious reasons. This is an area of fully devolved competence that is in a bad state of play. We have made every effort that we can within the constraints that we face, but at the same time we are limited in what we can do on this issue. I commend the noble Lord as he brings forward that Bill, and I hope that we are in a position to address it as a matter of some urgency.
If I may, I will skip to the very end of the debate. I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and, I believe, the entire House for the appointments. As for the question of the talks themselves lacking a structure, the latter part of the talks has actually been quite structured. There has now been a series of what we would term break-out constructions under an independent chair, not someone drawn from the Government or indeed from the parties of Northern Ireland, who has sought to facilitate that communication. In truth, the parties are still coming together, which is a welcome improvement on discussions that we have had in the past when, as I have told the House, we could not even get them round the table. In fact, and noble Lords might even recall the occasion, the last time that I was able to stand here and say that they had gathered together was at the PinkNews event at Stormont, which was not a bad way of gathering but a reminder that sometimes external factors can bring them together more successfully than can the Government, which is in itself a deeply troubling reality.
My noble friend Lord Cormack said that we should have devoted a whole day to this issue. I am slightly troubled by the prospect of a whole day spent looking at this, for reasons that I hope my noble friend will appreciate, but I note his sentiment, which is that we need to be clear that these issues, which we have debated on a number of occasions, would be far better in a restored devolved Assembly that could spend not just a whole day but every day debating them because that would be its principal function.
I welcome the comments from the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, about the DUP having no red lines. Irrespective of that, I fear that we have not yet been able to find any way of brokering the ultimate agreement and there remain issues of substance. I believe that those issues can be corrected and brought together, but at the present moment that has not been done. As I said earlier, if Brexit, the situation in the NHS, the wider questions that we have touched on in this House on a number of occasions and indeed the questions of same-sex marriage and abortion are not incentive enough to bring them back together, that begs the question of what on earth would. However, we must make every effort to make that happen.
I have considered the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and I had a brief chat with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, earlier today on a number of these issues. He talked to us again about thinking outside the box. I myself have used a box analogy myself many times: we appear to be trapped in a box with no light, and it is dark. That seems to be where we are right now, and until we can get through that we will continue to experience this sort of event, which I take no pride or enjoyment in doing. These are necessary steps for Northern Ireland’s good governance, drawing upon a previous Act that needs to be moved forward. I welcome noble Lords’ support for bringing that about.
We are approaching the point at which no doubt my words will come back to haunt me, but I must say again: this cannot go on. The people of Northern Ireland are the ones who are suffering from the lack of a devolved Government, and that cannot go on. The question is how it will come to an end, and on that point I am afraid I do not know the answer. I return to the reason why we are here today. I know we have another debate to come, but on the issue of the appointments I believe that they are necessary and timely. I would like to say that this will be the last time that this will be done—I would dearly like it to be true and I hope it will be—and I hope noble Lords will accept that I am moving this forward because it is necessary. I beg to move.