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Northern Ireland (Extension of Period for Executive Formation) (No. 2) Regulations 2019

Volume 800: debated on Thursday 31 October 2019

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Regulations laid before the House on 21 October be approved.

Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, it is good to be back among noble Lords today. I am conscious that I have had the pleasure of updating your Lordships’ House on Northern Ireland affairs frequently over recent weeks. It should therefore come as no surprise that I seek the House’s approval for this statutory instrument.

The Secretary of State announced on 21 October that he was extending the period for Executive formation to 13 January 2020. That is the only extension permitted under the terms of this Act, and the Secretary of State has no discretion as to the length of that extension. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State took this decision even though he has been making every effort to ensure that there is an Executive that can be sustainably reformed. He was disappointed—I echo and emphasise that—to have to take this step. None the less, it has unfortunately proven necessary. Noble Lords will be aware that, in the absence of Ministers, civil servants have before them a number of responsibilities that would not normally fall to them and we must ensure that they are adequately protected during this period.

As I said on Monday, the reality remains very simple: the parties are close to an accommodation that could see a restoration of the Executive. Only a few issues divide them. But it will take courage and determination for these issues, small though they may be, to be resolved. These regulations ensure that when a new Government return in December, after the election, they can move swiftly to work with the parties and the Irish Government, in full accordance with the three-stranded approach, to break—we hope—the deadlock as swiftly as possible. I know that all of us in this Chamber are very clear that we wish to see a restored Executive for the reasons discussed today and previously. I beg to move.

My Lords, I have two things to say to the Minister. It is interesting that he thinks this might be the last step on the way. That may or may not be true. We are on the brink of an election. These issues will be pretty actively debated across Northern Ireland, and Sinn Féin, the DUP and the other parties will have to explain why there is no Assembly. The outcome of the election may give an indication of whether the mood in Northern Ireland is shifting to put pressure on those who are not co-operating.

The Minister said that he hopes it will be possible to get the Assembly back and that there are only a few issues. To the extent that we know what they are—they seem to come and go a bit—they are issues for the Assembly to discuss, rather than excuses not to be in the Assembly. There is a certain contrariness about it. From the Minister’s statement, it is clear that the Government are looking towards the possibility of an election breaking the deadlock. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said he thought we will be in the same place in a year’s time. I hope he is wrong, and I hope the people of Northern Ireland will prove him wrong. Elections may not fundamentally change the position but they will at least bring it up to date. Last time there was an election in Northern Ireland, it was an election to a functioning Assembly. Now people will have to ask why they have not done it, which may well make a difference. That said, we on these Benches are happy to approve the Motion.

My Lords, since my name has been mentioned, although not in the usual derogatory way, I shall speak briefly. I do not think any party is more enthusiastic than mine about the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have read what the Secretary of State said: that there are a few minor issues that need resolution. That begs the question: if they are so minor, why are they not resolved? We have been here so often. It gives me no pleasure to stand here and say these things; that is not where I am politically and it is not where my party is on this issue. We want to be in there, not only because we have a responsibility to be there but to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. Whatever these one or two minor issues might be—I say clearly that we have not heard about them yet—let us hear what they are and have a resolution. Unfortunately, it will not happen before the election.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, is right: the parties will be challenged, and rightly so, about why we have not got a Northern Ireland Assembly up and functioning. I suspect I will be involved in some way in the election, and I am happy to take that on the chin and give an explanation of why we are where we are. I will do it with some regret.

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, feels deprived because he has not been addressed in a derogatory fashion. We can easily fix that, if he feels the need.

I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that I have heard the phrase “minor matters” before. I do not think they are minor because the headline issue is not the issue. RHI was a disaster but I accept and agree that it was not “the” issue. There were underlying issues that cannot easily be put into a Civil Service box that we can tick. There are relationship issues; there is the bigger picture of Brexit; there is the political situation in the Republic of Ireland, where some parties have a role to play; and there is the whole prospect of having to take difficult economic decisions, which will not necessarily be popular with certain elements of the parties’ supporters. Therefore, I do not think it correct to say that there are only a few issues left—believe me, parties in Northern Ireland can manufacture issues. If we could turn that into an economic engine, we would be a very wealthy part of the country, because there would be no difficulty whatever in finding more issues on which to have grievances.

On paper, that is how it looks from the outside, but I suspect that it would not be the actual position when push came to shove. That is why I have continuously argued in this place that the process being used is the wrong one. We have been here before. Sometimes effort is needed to tease out the real issues that lie behind the headline ones. I think the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, knows what I am getting at and agrees. This question has come up several times today, whether on the subject of health or something else, but I think we shall have to start differentiating between issues where people’s lives are at stake—and potentially being lost—and those where people’s quality of life is permanently altered through non-action by agencies of the state.

I am a long-term devolutionist. I believe in it and have supported and worked for it, so I am in no rush to see powers brought back here. However, I would argue that there is an emergency when people’s lives are being threatened and affected dramatically. This Parliament has a role to play in that and a responsibility to take it seriously. Obviously, when we come back, the issue will still have to be addressed. Whether it will be possible to get an agreement to establish an Assembly by 13 January, I do not know. I hope it will be but I suspect it will not, and we will then be faced with the dilemma of whether to continue with the existing arrangements, via an election, and see whether it can be kick-started again. However, I maintain that, in parallel with that, we will still have to address the fact that there are issues—in particular, on health—that require action, and the people cannot keep waiting.

We have discussed money. There have been increases but everybody knows that inflation in the health service is far higher than inflation in the general economy, and that is the trap that we have been in. There is no ability to plan the workforce, and that is a contributory factor because we have only 12-month budget cycles. The point that was made about the Barnett consequentials was a very good one. Technically, if money is given to health here, Northern Ireland gets a Barnett consequential, but that does not mean that it is spent on health. That decision is taken by the Executive, who might distribute it to different departments. The Civil Service is confronted with the same dilemma. That a Minister of the Crown has to stand up here and tell the House that he, as a Minister of the Crown, cannot instruct a civil servant just illustrates the impossibility and hopelessness of the position that we find ourselves in.

My Lords, we, of course, support this statutory instrument and, again, we support it reluctantly. This is the fourth occasion this week that Northern Ireland business has been discussed in this Chamber; this and, indeed, the last item to be discussed this afternoon, are all about the fact that there is no Government in Northern Ireland.

Looking at Scotland and Wales, which have their devolved Governments and assemblies, it is difficult to imagine what outcry there would be in the United Kingdom if democracy were suddenly to disappear from Edinburgh and Cardiff as it has from Belfast. We obviously cannot carry on like this, yet there is a chance—a window of about three or four weeks in January—when all this could change. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has said, it is not really about this or that issue, but more about a lack of confidence and trust between parties in Northern Ireland, and possibly between parties in government.

I agree that the general election could concentrate minds; the issue could itself become an election issue. Whether we can resolve it is another matter, but it will be discussed. Nothing will happen in relation to talks, because of the election and because of Christmas. I just hope that the parties will get together once the Christmas holiday is over, perhaps in a different way with some fresh thinking. As we have argued persistently from this side of the Chamber—it has been argued elsewhere as well—perhaps this could happen with an independent interlocutor; perhaps with a different sort of process; perhaps with the involvement of Prime Ministers, whoever they might be come the end of the year.

Something different has to happen, because we do not want a Minister to come to that Dispatch Box in January and say, “No, it hasn’t worked again”, which would mean that we would have to extend by another three months until Easter. That just cannot carry on. All of us in this place hope and pray that there will be success in those talks. In the meantime, we support the Government.

My Lords, as I was listening to this short debate, I was reminded of a poem by Longfellow. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I read a part that seems appropriate:

“Labor with what zeal we will,

Something still remains undone,

Something uncompleted still

Waits the rising of the sun …

Waits, and will not go away;

Waits, and will not be gainsaid;

By the cares of yesterday

Each to-day is heavier made;

Till at length the burden seems

Greater than our strength can bear,

Heavy as the weight of dreams,

Pressing on us everywhere.

And we stand from day to day,

Like the dwarfs of times gone by,

Who, as Northern legends say,

On their shoulders held the sky”.

That is where we are, I am afraid, with dreams gone by. We are literally sitting here considering how to extend through a general election period, which will consume the oxygen in the room. We will then arrive at the other side with precious little time to move forward before 13 January when we will need, once again, to reconvene here and take these matters forward. It is dispiriting, but it is where we are. This legislation is necessary, I think we can all agree. But the reality remains that, during this period, something has to happen.

I note that a number of Lords have spoken about the notion of “minor”. The point is that one person’s minor issue is another’s major issue. If they were all minor issues, I do not doubt that we could have made great progress by now but, sadly, what for one person is massive is for another considerably different. There is a line from a Laurel and Hardy film:

“You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead”.

We can bring the people to the discussions, but we cannot always bring the outcome we want from it. I wish I was in a better position to give you positive statements on this, but I am not going to pretend any more. This needs to be done. We need to get an Executive re-formed. The alternatives are not worth considering. On that slightly downbeat and negative note, I commend the regulations to the House.

Motion agreed.