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Northern Ireland: Devolved Government

Volume 800: debated on Monday 28 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Getting Stormont back up and running is my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’s absolute priority. The parties remain engaged and are demonstrating a willingness to find solutions to the remaining critical issues. However, a renewed determination to find agreement will be needed if an Executive are to be formed. I urge the parties to work with the Secretary of State and the Tánaiste to do what is right for the people of Northern Ireland.

Can there be any doubt that the EU withdrawal agreement has made political progress in Northern Ireland even harder to achieve? Do not all unionist parties, not just the DUP, have grounds for concern about the actions of this Conservative and Unionist Government? Will the Prime Minister, who has given himself the title of “Minister for the Union”, be at the forefront of continuing efforts to secure political progress and to strengthen our union, in the interests of all our fellow country men and women in Northern Ireland?

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has declared that he will be the Minister for the union. The union is composed of four nations. Northern Ireland is an integral part of that union. We must deliver for the people of Northern Ireland but so must the politicians there, who have an obligation to reform the Executive.

My Lords, will the Minister give careful consideration to whether it would speed up the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland if we were to stop paying them until they sat again?

My Lords, how many more times will the Government watch a failed attempt to bring the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive back into being before they find the kind of initiative that might break the deadlock and give the people of Northern Ireland what they need, which is local politicians capable of delivering and willing to deliver so many things which are hanging undone, unfinanced and undelivered?

The noble Lord is correct. He will be aware that last week there was an attempt for the Assembly to sit, but it was unable to do so because it could not be done on a cross-community basis. We must ensure that each element of the treaties which we are obliged to meet, not least the Belfast agreement, is met in full, but in reality the parties in Northern Ireland have that responsibility and they must answer to the people sooner rather than later.

My Lords, Northern Ireland has now been without a Government for more than 1,000 days. I know the Minister continually comes to the House to update it on the progress of those talks. With the current round of talks with the political parties in Northern Ireland ongoing, can he tell the House whether we are getting any closer to a working Executive and Assembly being formed in Northern Ireland any time soon? If not, I question the whole process the Government and the parties are involved in because it is certainly not delivering devolution for Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord is correct. There have been 1,000 lost days for the people of Northern Ireland. This cannot go on, but I have said that many times. The reality remains very simple: the parties are remarkably close, as only a few issues divide them, and it is time to resolve those few issues.

My noble friend has very clearly expressed the deeply held and legitimate concerns shared by a number of unionists right across this United Kingdom about aspects of the withdrawal agreement. Does the Minister believe that the prospects of restoring devolved government are improved by an agreement that places a de facto border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? What further assurances can he give this House that the agreement will not seriously undermine and weaken the political and economic integrity of the union?

My noble friend would, rightly, question my veracity if I said that Brexit had no influence in Northern Ireland. Right now, it is important to ensure that we are able to seek and deliver a withdrawal agreement that works for all parts of Northern Ireland. That will be the final test. However, I hope that the parties of Northern Ireland do not wait for that to happen but resolve to bring themselves into an Executive.

I do not think that the Minister quite answered the question that was asked of him on that point. However, after this Question, we shall move on to the next business—the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill. If anything, it is a really poignant reminder of what is happening in Northern Ireland: how the people there are waiting for decisions to be made. I have previously raised the issue of the hyponatraemia inquiry. I commissioned it all those years ago when I was a Minister and we are still waiting to go through the recommendations.

Noble Lords will have noticed that at the moment the Prime Minister is spending a great deal of time talking about an election of Members of Parliament to Westminster. Can the Minister tell us how much time the Prime Minister has had left over to talk personally to the political parties in Northern Ireland? How much is he involved in trying to get Stormont and the institutions up and running again, or is he too busy focusing on a withdrawal Bill that is doing more damage than helping in getting those institutions up and running?

Regarding hyponatraemia, I will, as I have said before, commit to working to deliver against that—it is long overdue. As to the question of the commitment of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, he is absolutely committed, but right now the person taking the lead on that is the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He has redoubled his efforts to bring the parties back to the table. That they have not done so remains a disappointment for him and for the people of Northern Ireland.

No doubt my noble friend knows that progress has been made when Prime Ministers—Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown—have become involved. Why does the Prime Minister not go to Northern Ireland and invite all Members of the Assembly, duly elected and still being paid, to Stormont to talk to him about these things?

When I next meet the Prime Minister, I will take the point raised by my noble friend and hopefully we can start a discussion about it.