Motion to Take Note
My Lords, this is the third report published in line with our obligations under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
I start with the issue of Executive formation. The Secretary of State was disappointed to extend the period for Executive formation to 13 January 2020. The parties have still not been able to reach agreement. We will continue to do all we can to bring about the formation of a sustainable Executive.
With regard to abortion, the duty under Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 is now in effect As a consequence, Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 have been repealed, and no prosecutions and investigations that were under way under those sections can be continued, regardless of when the offences were committed. We will be consulting on the new legal framework shortly, with regulations required to be in place by 31 March 2020.
We will continue to engage with health professionals in Northern Ireland, the political parties, and wider stakeholders over the coming days and weeks—including to ensure that the appropriate services can be established in line for the new legal framework to be in place.
On the issue of the presumption of non-prosecution and Troubles prosecution guidance, last year the Northern Ireland Office consulted extensively on the Stormont House Agreement proposals, the results of which revealed wide support for the broad institutional framework of the SHA and consensus among the main parties that the UK Government should push ahead with legislation. The consultation process also revealed areas of public concern regarding the detail of the proposals, including the independence of the institutions and how they would interact, as well as questions over the overall timeframe and costs.
The UK Government firmly believe that we must move forward with broad consensus. Central to this will be demonstrating that any approach we take is fully compatible with facilitating independent effective investigations into Troubles-related deaths and providing Northern Ireland with the best possible chance of moving beyond its troubled past. In this regard, the principles of the Stormont House Agreement— facilitating independent investigations while promoting reconciliation—provide the best framework for making progress in the most effective and efficient manner possible. The UK Government remain committed to working with all the Northern Ireland political parties and the Irish Government to this end.
Regarding victims’ payments, on 22 October, the UK Government launched a consultation on the legal framework for a victims’ payment scheme. The consultation will run for five weeks, and the UK Government will welcome views from all, including from noble Lords. As we have said previously, the legislation will be laid by the end of January 2020 and will take effect by the end of May 2020.
On political donations, the issue of retrospection remains sensitive, as we explored when we discussed this issue only two weeks ago. The Government will consult on this matter with the Northern Ireland parties in due course and will formally report back to the House. Any decision on the creation of a university in Derry is primarily one for universities themselves, as I stated last week.
On same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships, as the 21 October deadline has passed, the Government are now under a duty to deliver same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships in Northern Ireland. We will make regulations which will mean that civil marriage between couples of the same sex and civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples will be lawful in Northern Ireland from 13 January 2020. The first civil marriages should be able to take place in the week of Valentine’s Day. We plan to consult on religious ceremonies and religious protections and the conversion of civil partnerships to same-sex marriage and marriage to opposite-sex civil partnerships, and therefore there will be a short delay before we make regulations related to these issues, and these issues alone. I hope that this update has been of value.
My Lords, the main requirement for politics anywhere, but particularly in Northern Ireland, is stamina. It appears that not everyone who asked for these regular reports has quite the stamina of some of the rest of us who have to read through and comment on them. That is equally the case for the Minister, who is very committed, energetic and shows stamina.
I would like to raise three issues with regard to this report. First, it points out that the only extension permissible under the Act takes us to 13 January 2020 when the Secretary of State would have to consider the question of an Assembly election. We have brought this up again and again and now we are bringing it up again, and we will continue to do so. At the other end of the building, a great deal of time, effort and energy are being devoted to the question of whether we have a Westminster election when it is not legally required, whereas an Assembly election, which is legally required, keeps being postponed. Is there any reason, if a date is not fixed for the Westminster general election, that the same date might not be used for an Assembly election so that we could get on with the business? We hear fine words about how the Secretary of State will have to consider the question, but it seems to be pretty endless.
The Minister also referred to the question of a university campus in the north-west, a matter I raised the last time we had such a debate. This report notes that on 17 October, the Secretary of State met the vice-chancellor of Ulster University, Paddy Nixon, along with John Kelpie and Jim Roddy, as well as local political representatives. He suggested in his opening remarks that no permission or other agreement by the Government is necessary for the University of Ulster to move forward with a postgraduate medical faculty. Is that the case? If so, can he give us some guidance as to the content of the discussions those representatives had with the Secretary of State? Is there any indication that they will be able to move ahead with this, as I mentioned last time? It is not the sort of thing that can be done at the drop of a hat because it takes a long time not only to get the staff together, but to interview candidates and so on so that a course can move ahead.
The third issue is the RHI report on the inquiry conducted by Sir Patrick Coghlin. It is now quite some time since that inquiry finished its hearings. As of July, we heard that it had sent out letters to all those who might be named in the report, but apparently we still have no indication of when the report might be received. The Irish news suggests that it might be November, but it is not clear which November because the issue seems to keep being pushed on into the future. Can the Minister give us any indication of when that important report will come out? The homework for it seems largely to have been done by the journalist Sam McBride in his book, but we would like to see the report, given that the hearings themselves quite properly generated enormous interest and concern among the people of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on the issue of the university. This goes back to the early 1960s and the whole expansion of the university in the city of Londonderry. A strange situation seems to be developing now around the medical school, which is really part of the wider city deal. We are continually being told that the business plan is complete, we are moving forward, and of course there has to be a year before the intake of students can begin to come into the university. However, although the meetings are continuing, I am being told that a local Minister needs to be in place to take this issue forward. That seriously worries me because of the fact that it is part of the wider city deal.
I agree entirely with the noble Lord. Indeed, I raised exactly this question in the last debate. I pointed out that historically the placement of the university in our second city of Derry is a sensitive political issue and that it is not just a matter of economics or even of education. That is still the case because this is a live issue for people, and that is why I asked the Minister whether ministerial approval was needed. We were told before that a devolved Minister needed to be in place but we are now advised by the Minister that such approval is not required and that it is simply a matter for the university to move ahead.
I hope that the Minister can clarify the position in this debate. If not, perhaps he will write to me and to the noble Lord, Lord Hay, who has a long-standing interest in this issue, to clarify whether ministerial approval is needed, and if so, why is it being held up?
My Lords, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Act 2019 almost overcomes the reality of where we are. The Government have said repeatedly that they have a process and that their number one priority is to restore the Executive. However, the reality is that there is no process. Ad hoc meetings take place at regular intervals with regular intensity, but there is no proper process. If it is left to this ad hocery, one obstacle after another will arise and we will never get anywhere. No pressure will be applied. It is always, “Oh, we can’t do it because of Brexit”, “We can’t do it because of this”, and “We can’t do it because of that”.
The Assembly met last Monday, but I have to say that it did not cover itself in glory. It was a most depressing, aggressive, nasty meeting and it is as well that the proceedings ended when they did and that there was no second attempt the following day because more harm would have been done had it persisted in the way that it was going.
Initially, I was opposed to the ideas put forward on both Benches opposite about some form of interlocutor being identified to assist the process, but the time has come to revisit that. But it needs to be done within a structure and I have to say to the Minister that his department has got itself into a rut over the last 10 to 15 years. We were told when the Minister came into the department three years ago that we were going to think outside the box. Well the box has proved to be much stronger and less able to be escaped from than we thought. We have not thought outside the box: we are still in a rut.
One of the reports that I asked to be included was on the mitigation of welfare reform. That report is due to be received on or before 1 December. However, if events in the other place, whether today or tomorrow, overtake that, will the Minister identify what will be done if we are in the middle of a general election before 1 December? Those mitigation measures would need to be addressed well in advance of the end of the financial year. I would be most grateful if he could help us in that direction.
I have secured a small Private Member’s Bill on health. The objective is very simple. Out of a population of 1.8 million, apart from there being over 280,000 people waiting for a first appointment with a consultant, of those 280,000 people, 109,000 are waiting in excess of 12 months. The Nuffield Trust and Professor Deirdre Heenan produced a report a few weeks ago. The chances of an individual being on a waiting list for over a year in Northern Ireland for a first appointment with a consultant is one in 16. There is a one in 16 chance of being on a waiting list for over a year in Northern Ireland. The equivalent figure in England is one in 48,000, so you are 3,000 times more likely to be on a waiting list for over a year in Northern Ireland than in England.
As a Parliament, we have an obligation to protect our citizens which supersedes parties and all issues. I believe that we are allowing citizens to be harmed by the failure to resolve this particular issue. A number of noble Lords in this House know more about medicine, both physical and mental, than I do, but the one thing that any citizen knows is that delay can be fatal—literally. People are waiting, even for some basic operations, for three or four years, and that is to say nothing of the mental health issues that we have.
I appeal to the Minister to think outside the box and persuade his right honourable friend in the other place that, on humanitarian grounds—not political grounds—we need to get a Minister involved in health. That requires the power to be taken back here. It would instantaneously go back to Stormont on the formation of the Executive, so there is nothing to be lost. I know that a Minister will not solve the problems overnight, but we cannot have any manpower planning when we are working on a hand-to-mouth budget. That has to be done over time. We are thousands of nurses and hundreds of consultants short. All of these problems can in part be assisted by having somebody there to take decisions, but we cannot leave this at it stands to a Permanent Secretary, however capable—and we are fortunate that we have a capable Permanent Secretary in that department.
I appeal to the Minister to ensure that he and his colleagues revisit this issue not only about getting proper talks in a structured format but also to look at the damage that has been done to the population by some of the health statistics that I have drawn noble Lords’ attention to.
My Lords, I begin by underlining the importance of what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has just said to the House, and I ask my noble friend on the Front Bench: can he not discuss with the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister the location of a Health Minister—even if it means appointing an extra one to the department—who will remain in Northern Ireland to supervise the disturbing situation, which the noble Lord has described, until the Executive is restored?
As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has said, we need to think outside the box and bear in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said about an election. I was one of those who supported deferring an election, and I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was also—he assents. But we cannot go on and on like this. I have urged my noble friend the Minister, of whom I am an admirer, many times. I know that he has done a great deal, but I urge that we must have an interlocutor. I will go further and try to be specific. Who are the two people from the UK Government who did most to bring about the Good Friday agreement? Sir John Major and Mr Blair. Should we not see whether they could play a role? Neither of them is a Member of either House, and they both maintain their commitment to the United Kingdom and to Northern Ireland. I suggested earlier this afternoon that the current Prime Minister should summon all Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and talk to them in Stormont. Could this not be a follow-up? We must come up with ideas, and we have got to try to do something to break this logjam.
In January, which is quite near, we will have had Northern Ireland without an Executive or a functioning Assembly for three years. That is why we are having these regular debates. What progress have we made? The answer is precious little. My noble friend has come to the Dispatch Box and said that talks are going on. They have been intermittent, but they have also been unproductive. If Northern Ireland is going to continue to have a devolved Administration, it must have an Administration and an Assembly that meets. I do not wish to see a return to direct rule, but we are now in the worst of all worlds because we have Civil Service rule without direct answerability either in the UK as a whole or in Northern Ireland. This is not in any way criticising individuals who are seeking to do their jobs. Politicians in Northern Ireland have got to realise that unless they can come together, direct rule is inevitable. We do not want it, so can we not try to get an interlocutor or interlocutors to go to Stormont and remain there—a locked room has a great deal to recommend it—until we have some agreement?
It goes without saying that I have mentioned the names of two former Prime Ministers without consulting them, and they may be horrified when they read about it tomorrow, if they do, but they are two men who have done an enormous amount for our United Kingdom and for Northern Ireland in particular. I think they will both be deeply distressed if what they achieved between them comes to an end, so give them a chance at perhaps ensuring that it survives. If not, let us have somebody else and let us set an absolute time limit—31 January seems to be a favoured date at the moment—and let us try to make some real progress.
My noble friend has tried extremely hard. His heart is absolutely in the right place. I paid tribute to him earlier this afternoon in the context of another debate, and I pay tribute to him again, but will he please undertake after this debate to have an immediate meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss what has been said in your Lordships’ House, where we believe passionately in the union and in Northern Ireland remaining part of it?
My Lords, there is an age-old phrase which runs like this: if you are not careful, perception can become reality. As I listened to what has already been said in this debate and in the previous debate—where again we were talking about the results of victimhood, although in a specialised form—I was reminded of that statement because the world in which I live and in which I have tried to serve in a particular capacity for most of my life is learning yet again that perception can become the reality. I know that we have had repeated assurances that all the efforts you can think of are being made to restore local government to Northern Ireland in an Assembly and an Executive, but I have to say to the Minister that on the ground, in everyday life and among everyday people, the perception is that we are taking second place as a community, in the eyes of the mother of Parliaments and the Government, to other considerations.
People think that Brexit was a golden opportunity to give us a reason for not pushing us too far and getting the result we needed. People believe in their hearts and, as they look at the constancy of the statements and reassurances that all is being done by Her Majesty’s Government to restore our Executive and our Assembly, people are saying “We hear that so glibly now that we no longer believe it”. I reiterate what has been said constantly in this House and pay tribute to the Minister’s efforts as a Minister to further our interests, but I have to say to him that that perception has gained tremendous ground of late. There has been criticism of the performance of successive Secretaries of State in Northern Ireland. Some of that criticism has been politically based rather than based on reality, but I ask the Minister whether there is any way in which the urgency of the situation in Northern Ireland demands the involvement, contribution and leadership by Her Majesty’s Prime Minister. We believe that there has been a levelling off in the activity which could be brought to try to create a situation whereby a new Assembly and a new Executive appear.
I have often addressed the House on the legacy of the Troubles, and I want to touch on that again briefly. The consultation that is about to take place on the way in which legacy issues are dealt with has thrown to the surface an issue that I believe will gain momentum and cause tremendous heart searching. I refer to the question of when we define the beginning and end of the Troubles—the beginning being in the 1960s and the so-called end of the Troubles coming with the Good Friday agreement. Immediately my mind goes back to a situation such as the Omagh bombing and the many, many families affected by that bomb, either directly or indirectly by its consequences. If the suggested period by which we judge the Troubles comes to pass, Omagh will be excluded.
Of course we can argue that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—to which many Members of this House contributed—marked a watershed, and no one knows that better than the former Secretary of State the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. It was a watershed. We had such hopes for the future—some of them realised, some of them shattered—but if we go so far as to select a historical point as the end-point when we no longer consider the needs of people, we will court trouble. My mind is not wise enough to give noble Lords a solution, but I warn the Minister that there is trouble ahead over the question of how we define the extent of victimhood. I urge him to consider that with his colleagues, for I believe that, no matter the urgency of the matter that we stress in this House, there will be a long-term grievance for many people.
The other point that I want to make is that I believe the day will come when we look back at the period in which we are living and say that one thing that we omitted to recognise was that the situation in Northern Ireland, with the lack of government at Stormont, was saying to the House and to the United Kingdom things of immense importance about the theory and practice of devolution. Devolution works when there is agreement—when the centre recognises and trusts what the limbs of devolution are doing and understands why they are doing it. However, if the limbs do not work, there are questions that the centre has to answer. One, I believe, is the question of how we deal with the theories of devolution when, for some reason, one of the limbs does not work.
I say to the Minister that I believe that the day will come when people—perhaps not those who are with us at the moment but another generation—will say, “Why were they not awake to the lessons of the theories of devolution that were staring them in the face?” One, of course, is the matter of dealing with our legacy. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, has given us frequent reminders about the situation in our health service and hospitals, and to that I would add the situation in our schools. Teachers have to buy toilet rolls so that their school can stay open and they have to make sure that meals are provided—in some cases that I know of, out of their own pockets. Why is that? It is because no one is taking responsibility at a government level on the hill at Stormont.
That leads me to one conclusion. Apart from technical detail and political consideration, there is a moral issue at the centre of the devolution structure that says that we, centrally, have a duty to do something when a limb of devolution fails and does not exist. Therefore, I ask the Minister, with his genuine concern for us, to take seriously what has been said this afternoon not just about the political need but about the needs of the ordinary people—the men, women and children—who live with the legacy of our Troubles.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for presenting this report, and I add my support to those who have spoken against the continuation of direct rule.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, raised the question of whether there should be an election next year—I think that he is right to raise it, although I do not know the answer—and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, made a very important point about health. However, what worries me about the report is that there is a slight sense that we are on the right path. It is noticeable that the Stormont House agreement is mentioned but not its date. It is now five and a half years old. That is a telling little omission. We are told that it has principles that help with reconciliation and so on. It is not the fault of the Stormont House agreement as such, but I cannot see how the principles in it promote reconciliation. I have said in this House before that I do not think the proposals for independent investigation will promote reconciliation. Of course, the consultation that has been carried out shows that, at some level, people in Northern Ireland still want independent investigations. But the hard truth is that they want independent investigations into the other side’s doings rather more than as an abstract reality.
The consultation shows no sign of what was almost a majority of opinion the last time this House debated the issue of legacy. Many in the House who spoke that night had long service in Northern Ireland and had lived there. The majority opinion was tending towards drawing a line under this by some means. Parliament itself seems also to have indicated at various points that that is the majority opinion and could be gained some time next year if this becomes the issue.
Perhaps more important is the Irish language question. I want to say one thing. We have been told, quite rightly, that Brexit was stopping a deal or an accommodation. That is a perfectly correct point; it has made things very difficult. But a no-deal Brexit, which was the most destabilising prospect for the talks, has now virtually disappeared. We have Second Reading. I know that some like to think that no deal is still there but, in the real world, it has disappeared. I well understand the objection to the approach to Brexit that the Government are taking but, for good or ill, as an issue interfering with the talks early next year, it should not be a problem in the way that it certainly has been in the last few years.
Equal marriage and abortion are other divisive issues that are now resolved. These issues were creating huge problems in the talks. Many people will be unhappy with the way that they have been resolved but, for good or ill, as I have said, they have been resolved. Irish language is the remaining great issue along with legacy issues. I am not convinced that the resolution of legacy issues is a precondition to getting the Executive established but I think that the Irish language is. Once again, this Parliament has the capacity to resolve that. The St Andrews agreement seems to say that that is the job of this House. Certainly, the framing language around the St Andrews agreement suggests a moderate reform, if we look at the way it is couched, for the prospects for the Irish language.
I absolutely accept the wisdom of that point. Indeed, this is an important subject for conversation and dialogue in the lead-up to the talks. We cannot have a repeat of what has happened over the last 1,000 days. I am simply saying that the Government have had little choice but to allow things to drift for these 1,000 days, but next year there will be a new political context creating new opportunities. I am not committed to any of these solutions. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, might be right or wrong on the election; that is not the point. I might be right or wrong on the Irish language. What I am sure of is that we cannot go on drifting. The Government should be aware that a break is coming. A new situation will be coming about early next year and there will have to be new thinking. We cannot go on talking about the Stormont agreement of 2014.
My Lords, I am speaking in the gap to raise an urgent issue mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, which I spoke about in the Queen’s Speech debate—to no avail, to the disappointment of members of Northern Ireland’s civil society gathered at the Law Centres’ annual conference last week.
Because of Northern Ireland’s special circumstances, a mitigations package to soften the impact of certain elements of “welfare reforms” was agreed up to March 2020 by the Northern Ireland Executive. A joint report by the Work and Pensions Committee and Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recommended that it be extended beyond next March, stating that,
“the UK Government must act quickly to end the uncertainty”.
It argued that the circumstances were sufficiently exceptional as to override questions of devolved competence, with,
“a potentially drastic impact on vulnerable people and no Assembly to extend the legislation”.
The response I received to a Written Question was that the Department for Communities was responsible for the delivery of the mitigation schemes and a decision to extend beyond March 2020,
“would be a matter for an incoming Minister for Communities in a restored Northern Ireland Executive”.
I am sorry, but, as I said last week, that is simply irresponsible given that there is no certainty that the Executive will be restored in time. It is like waiting for Godot.
The Department for Communities has itself made clear that, in the absence of a functioning Assembly,
“it is considered that the only viable option for providing the legal authority for the Department to make mitigation payments beyond 2020 would be for the Westminster Parliament to bring forward appropriate legislation”.
The response that I received in the debate was that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did not have the power to instruct the Northern Ireland Civil Service. But this is so unhelpful. I understand that it is quite within the power of the UK Government to legislate in the absence of a restored Executive, provided that they are willing to amend existing legislation that prevents it.
This is what is being called for—not that the Secretary of State instructs the Northern Ireland Civil Service. As Nigel Mills MP pointed out to the Secretary of State in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Government,
“have legislated for quite a few devolved matters ... it would not be unprecedented to do so for this as well”.
I know that the Minister cares about such issues. I cannot believe that he would wish for around 35,000 low- income households to be made worse off overnight because the UK Government refused to use their powers in this way. According to the Department for Communities, the average estimated weekly loss due to the bedroom tax would be £12.50 and the benefit cap £42. Anxiety among tenants, social security claimants and advice workers is growing. There is a clear civic and political consensus in Northern Ireland that the mitigations must continue beyond March 2020. Following the pressure put on him at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Secretary of State agreed to reflect. I implore the Minister to add his weight to do what he can to impress on the Secretary of State the importance and urgency of taking legislative action now.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the House for the opportunity to speak in the gap concerning the issues before the House. People say, “Here’s another report”—but a report on what? In fact:
“The Secretary of State shall make a further report”.
It is not if he wants to; he is ordered to make that report, and that is why we are having this debate in the House today.
I have to challenge some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Bew. He said that the issue of abortion was now resolved. That is not so. That issue was not resolved in Northern Ireland, and if anyone in this House thinks that it is, they had better come to Northern Ireland and find out what the people of Northern Ireland think. In fact, there is at the present moment a request that a referendum should be held in Northern Ireland concerning the issue of abortion. It is a running sore. Until the people of Northern Ireland have a right to have their voices really heard, instead of this House overriding the will of elected representatives who were elected by the people, that will not be resolved.
The noble Lord also said that same-sex marriage was resolved. Those are easy words to fall off a person’s tongue. In fact, it would be very popular in this House—but it is not the reality. As for an election on 31 January, if that is what the Secretary of State decides, so let it be. It is right that the people of Northern Ireland are tested on their will, and I have no doubt whatever that my colleagues in the party that I represent will once again be endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland as the leading unionist voice.
I was interested at Question Time in how the Minister seemed minded to withdraw salaries from Assembly Members. That is something for him and his colleagues to make up their mind on—but they should remember that the majority of those Assembly Members want to have a functioning Executive and want to get back into the Assembly to carry on their work. But one party is stopping them from doing that. I would be interested to see if the Minister would be as quick to rise to his feet and tell us about the millions of pounds over the years that have been claimed by Sinn Féin in expenses for not coming to the other place and representing their people and letting their voices be heard. That is a challenge to the Minister, because that issue is not going to go away either.
Will the Minister make it clear that, if Sinn Féin continues to block the restoration of devolved government at Stormont, he will no longer allow the intolerable drift in policy-making? The noble Lord, Lord Empey, mentioned health, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, mentioned education. Those are vital issues that are detrimentally impacting the lives of the people of Northern Ireland, as well as the future well-being and prosperity of the young people in Northern Ireland. This House was able to take the powers concerning same-sex marriage and to bring in the law concerning abortion, but there seems to be a reticence to take other powers. If there is to be no return of Stormont, the present situation cannot continue, and if direct-rule powers must be used, they will have to be brought back into operation.
The report also talks about veterans and those who have served in Northern Ireland. It seems to be that the Government have tiptoed around that issue. There was clear evidence of lawbreaking and illegal activity that was known to the authorities. In a recent television programme regarding the Troubles, Martin McGuinness put together a bomb and trained children how to load a gun, with no fear of arrest. He had no mask on and it was in open daylight, yet there was no prosecution. One has to ask the question: why?
My Lords, we are here because the Government have been mandated to provide regular updates and reports. I think we all want to thank the Minister for the conscientious way in which he has consistently brought these reports forward, and indeed for the progress that has been made in the absence of Ministers with full responsibilities, a functioning Assembly and a functioning Executive. However, there is an underlying frustration that clearly will have to be addressed.
I want to address two or three practical issues. My noble friend Lord Alderdice mentioned the renewable heating initiative. An independent energy consultant, Andrew Buglass, has been appointed to look at hardship cases but it is not entirely clear what the timescale is. We hear from the Ulster Farmers’ Union that farmers are selling stock, selling land and making all the adjustments they can, yet they face the real possibility of going out of business. Can the Minister indicate, now or in the future, whether these issues will be addressed in time, which is a matter of concern?
I take note of that. Obviously, there is real concern out there.
Regarding the medical school in Derry/Londonderry, it would be good if we could establish that there is freedom to pursue this idea. Many of us have engaged in different ways. The university tells me that it is in a position to do this, if it is possible to do it. It would still be matter of getting its hands on the money—we know that—but it has a building and a clear plan and it feels able to press ahead. It is always good to see something that takes us forward, rather than leaving us stagnating.
I turn to the situation with political donations, which the report simply says is the same as it was. I suggest to the Minister that we are facing a general election for the UK with a huge lacuna in Northern Ireland, where money can be channelled without it being published. I accept that people have notification that it may eventually be published, and clearly, if anything illegal has been done then at some point or other, they will face prosecution. However, I wonder whether it would be better if the law was enacted now, so that people had to declare it and there was no danger of it being retrospective. I say that because evidence of wrongful raising of money from improper sources has been identified and was used to promote the distortion of a referendum, the consequences of which we are all living with. Yet there has been no action. The reality is that you have to stop it. It is too late afterwards when the result has been manipulated by the misuse of funds. I ask the Minister: is there anything more that can be done or said about that?
My noble friend mentioned an election. There are two things to be said here. The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, said it would be fine to have an election at the end of January. He is confident that his colleagues would get elected. On the other hand, if there was an Assembly election at the same time, under a different electoral system, it might show a slightly different mix of opinion in Northern Ireland. We have had two elections this year and there has been a noticeable, identifiable shift of political opinion in Northern Ireland.
I am glad to have that clarification. At the end of the day, the point is that the Assembly, which has been dysfunctional for three years, ultimately loses any kind of legitimacy if its mandate is not renewed. It is perfectly likely—as may well be the case with a general election for the House of Commons—that the result will not be that dissimilar to the previous result, and the deadlock will remain unresolved. Nevertheless, if the argument is that we have to have an election to resolve the deadlock in the House of Commons, it is slightly obtuse to say that we do not have to have one to resolve a deadlock in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The idea certainly seems to be becoming more pertinent.
We have not heard the Northern Ireland voice on Brexit in any kind of direct way. Yet we have a potential agreement put forward by the Prime Minister which was denounced by him and denied by his predecessor. It is what the EU asked for in the first instance, which we have wasted three years saying we did not want. Much more to the point—as I am sure noble Lords from the DUP and their colleagues would be quick to point out, and as I pointed out last week—it drives a coach and horses through the Conservative Party’s claim still to be a unionist party. It is absurd to suggest that this agreement, if it goes through, does not create a major division between the activities taking place in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom. As somebody who supports remain, I would prefer to live in Northern Ireland rather than the mainland, under these proposals. It is certainly not a single solution for a single referendum that is UK-wide. Ultimately, that is its fatal flaw, and it may make it very difficult to reach that agreement.
The tragedy of all this is that many of the details concerning how Brexit will impact on Northern Ireland should have been debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly and considered by the UK Government, and the people of Northern Ireland should have been represented. My final parting shot is this. Whether with an interlocutor, other initiatives or whatever, how and when can we get to a point where this derelict, defunct Assembly becomes active and relevant? It is impossible to go on for much longer without direct rule being the outcome. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, that if that is the case, precisely the same same-sex marriage and abortion rules that have been passed by this House would stand. Direct rule means direct rule. Most of us want to avoid it and we want the people of Northern Ireland to have their say, but three years is long enough and I am not sure that we can go on much longer like this.
My Lords, I hope we can go on, but it is a rather gloomy situation. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred to stamina. When he and I first met to deal with these issues, I was 48 years of age. As I approach my 71st birthday, the definition of stamina completely changes.
I say to the House that a lot of very interesting points have been made today regarding issues other than the restoration. In particular, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, talked about legacy. Other noble Lords mentioned the university in Derry and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others raised the health service. In my remarks, I want to concentrate on the restoration of the institutions, because all of those other issues depend on this. The difficulty we now face—and there are always difficulties—is that Brexit still divides. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, made the point very well indeed. The issues of the backstop and Northern Ireland in relation to the negotiations with Europe were central to what has happened in the United Kingdom over the last three years. Had there been a restored Assembly and Executive, I am convinced that they would have worked together and resolved the issues about Northern Ireland. However, it did not happen, and there has been no Northern Ireland voice. That is the great tragedy of this.
Of course, the other issue is whether Parliament will be dissolved in the next week or so. In my experience, every single time these obstacles are raised—the council elections, the Assembly elections, the European elections, the general election—people say they hold up progress in Northern Ireland, but they did not in the past. There is no reason to suppose that they should do so now, but, to be perfectly honest, I wonder whether the obstacles become excuses. The difficulty we face is that the longer we do not have devolution, the more difficult it will be to establish it again. In the words of a number of Members of your Lordships’ House this evening, we drift towards direct rule. The imposition of direct rule, which might or might not be inevitable over the next few weeks or months, tragedy though it is, will make things infinitely more difficult to restore and we are back at square one.
I make no apology for repeating the points that I and others have made about how we think the talks can progress. We raise the issue of an independent chair or interlocutor in every single one of these debates. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has prayed in aid previous Prime Ministers. Others have mentioned a previous President of the United States, Bill Clinton. We could think of people such as Jonathan Powell, for example, who played a huge role in the Good Friday agreement. There are undoubtedly people out there who have sufficient weight and experience and who could be called upon to act as this independent person, so long as the parties agree of course—I understand that.
The talks have no structure or shape to them. It seems that we have to get back to a very tight structure and a proper plan, with an independent chair or interlocutor and a proper agenda on the table. I am not convinced we have, although there have been improvements in the last few months. I repeat that I think the present Secretary of State is doing his level best to try to ensure we get into a better situation, but it has been haphazard. It has been on and off. It has not been consistent or had the ring of proper talks about it. If we do not think or believe that these talks are serious, people in Northern Ireland will not believe that they are either.
Another crucial aspect of this is the role of those at the very top of government. Sir John Major and Tony Blair played an enormous role because they were there. They talked to people all the time, constantly, even in the locked rooms. There has been no evidence at all over the last three years of prime ministerial engagement from either Dublin or London. There has been a bit, but it does not amount to much. Frankly, you need that level of experience and gravitas to move people in Northern Ireland.
There is a role for Parliament, too. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, has consistently made the point that the St Andrews agreement indicates that this Parliament could put the Irish language Act on the statute book. Last Saturday, after Wales nearly defeated South Africa, I watched all of Arlene Foster’s speech. It was an interesting day on the television. I thought that it was very interesting that she was making an overture regarding a new culture Act—or language Act, if you like, because they would be part of each other. If that olive branch is there, people should grab it. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, is right: whatever we think about the abortion or equal marriage issues—they are very controversial and difficult, and I understand all that—in a sense this would take it off the table as regards obstacles that other parties put in the way of getting around the table to talk. A huge amount of experience, not just here in this Parliament but in Wales and Scotland, could be drawn on to deal with a language Act. A commission could even be set up before an Act is passed. It is not beyond the wit of parliamentarians to help out. The more we take off the table, the fewer excuses can be used not to establish the talks and therefore the institutions.
Ultimately, the issue is trust—it always was and always will be—but as co-guarantors, as a British Government with the Irish Government, and as a Parliament, including us in this House, we have to try to ensure that we help restore that trust. Otherwise, all the problems that your Lordships have mentioned will get worse. Worse than that, the progress that has been made over the past two decades in Northern Ireland could be put in serious jeopardy.
My Lords, these reports every fortnight give us an opportunity to touch on some of the bigger issues facing Northern Ireland. I will try to take on some of the specific issues raised today.
I will begin with the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. She raised very important points. We must speak very clearly on this. I have been told by my officials that the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers does not prevent a senior officer of a Northern Ireland department exercising a function of the department during the period of forming an Executive if the officer is satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so. If it is in the public interest to exercise that during the period, we must make sure that there is no diminution of that during that period. I will confirm that in writing to the noble Baroness.
A question was asked about whether these reports will continue. To be honest, I am not sure about that myself in terms of what is happening in the other place, but if we do indeed enter into purdah there will be no Parliament here to debate the reports, so the reporting function would be in abeyance. However, I would instruct my officials that we will continue to draft such reports so that they might be available for a continuing or incoming Government, regardless of what happens next. It is important that this information is still actively gathered together.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, asked about the founding of a university in Derry/Londonderry. The answer, in truth, is that it rests with the institution itself to put forward the case. To date, none has done so. If the university is indeed in such a position it should do just that and put together its case to initiate the proceedings, because nothing can happen until that has been completed. It is a matter of devolved authority but, none the less, the first step will necessarily be taking forward the examination of the business case for the initiation of the establishment of a university. If he were able to facilitate, I would be very happy to sit with the institution and discuss this further. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already sat and discussed with it. I am not privy to that conversation but, if it was not on that point, I am very happy to initiate and have that very clear discussion with that institution if we can.
I will touch on the larger question that rests here today on the formation of an Executive. I am always drawn to the remarks of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, on these matters. As some noble Lords will be aware, I am also a fan of poetry from Ireland:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
The ceremony of innocence is drowned”.
Those noble Lords who know their Yeats will know the bit I missed out. I had to check the exact words, because I always remember the part I read out. The rest of it says:
“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”.
That is what it means if we get this wrong; the bit I left out is the problem. It is easy to talk about the other bits; it is the bit in the middle that causes us the problem. This is where it becomes very difficult, because I am running out of words to say that no stone shall be left unturned. I am out of clichés about what is going on in Northern Ireland and I want to stop using them.
It is critical that the parties in Northern Ireland come together. If they do not, then in the new year there will need to be an election. I do not know what the result will be. I have no crystal ball. My fear is that it will lead us to where we are now, and thereafter we will take that journey down the path down towards direct rule, spoken of by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has said on more than one occasion, once we enter direct rule, we do not get out of it. I think that the truth is that the people of Northern Ireland are crying out for change, whether it be in health, education or welfare. They are crying out and no one is hearing them. It is a silent cry for change to come.
I cannot make the parties do more than they are doing. The question has been asked: what is the Prime Minister doing? The Prime Minister met the parties in July. However, there is no point in equivocating around the truth that we sit in the fog of Brexit. I make no excuses for that, and I make no explanations around that. That is where we are: becalmed in the fog of Brexit, waiting for the winds of change to pick up and take our vessel towards that promised land which will be change in Northern Ireland. Yet here we wait. We listen to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, about the situation with health in Northern Ireland, and are reminded of exactly what it means to get this wrong. We cannot be becalmed and wait for this to pass. That is the shocking and sad thing about it.
I take a slight issue with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. There is a structure to the talks. We have brought in independent facilitators—although not an overarching, high-profile one—to bring the parties to that point from which we believe that the next step can be taken. If I could quantify it in a meaningful way, I would say that we are 95% there but, like jumping over a chasm, 95% does not get you to the other side. It is that magic 5% that needs to be met, and it rests in the areas with which I am sure noble Lords are very familiar: rights, culture and language, issues which can unite us. The poetry of language can bring us together, yet it can divide us strongly as well. This is the part that remains undone—that remains to be stitched together. If we can find that compromise and way forward on the language matter—it seems in some respects so close, and would be so joyous to get right for all of Northern Ireland—the issues that have been stacking up could be addressed one by one. The greatest danger for an incoming Executive just now is too much to do and too little time. What shall the priorities for Northern Ireland be? How shall we try to establish whether it should be welfare, education or whatever else? Some of these issues have been left waiting to be taken forward not just since the downfall of the last Executive, but for decades preceding it.
I could go on in this regard, but I will not. I do not think that would be useful at this time. I wish I could say that when I come back here, those parties will have found a way forward. However, I do not think that I am going to be doing that in a fortnight’s time, I am sad to say. There may be other reasons why I do not return here in two weeks’ time; I am afraid that I do not know about that either. However, I believe that these reports are invaluable. They have provided us with a platform on which to have this serious debate. I hope that they are heard and listened to in Northern Ireland. I hope that the parties recognise them for what they are: a cry for something to be done, for change to come, for something to be resolved and for the Northern—
I do not get to meet the Prime Minister as often as I would like to, I am afraid, but I am very happy, on the next occasion when we do meet, to raise this matter. I do not believe that one can claim to be the Minister for the Union without ensuring that one is doing all that one can to hold that union together. I will make that point very strongly when I next have an audience with the Prime Minister. I suspect that will not be for a little while but, none the less, when I have that opportunity, I will.
I commend these reports. I believe that they serve a purpose and will continue to do so. I hope that there will come a point when we can look back on them as having provided the foundation for the necessary restoration of a sustainable Executive.