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Northern Ireland Executive Formation

Volume 801: debated on Thursday 16 January 2020


With the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place:

“Mr Speaker, prior to Christmas the UK Government initiated a period of political talks to get Stormont back up and running in Northern Ireland. Following nine months of negotiation and nearly four weeks of intensive discussions over the Christmas period, last week the Tánaiste and I tabled a draft text to all parties and made that text available to the public. The document, entitled New Decade, New Approach, sets out what we assessed to be a fair and balanced deal based on all the discussions between ourselves and the parties and what the parties told us would represent the right deal for Northern Ireland.

I am delighted to tell the House that all five of Northern Ireland’s main parties accepted this deal as a basis to re-enter devolved government. Ministers have been appointed, an Executive have been formed and the Assembly is open for business. Devolution is restored in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister visited the Assembly and met with the Executive on Monday to mark the positive moment of restored devolved government.

I know the whole House will join with me in welcoming and celebrating the return of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and will join me in congratulating party leaders on their confident decision to make this happen. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank my team and the UK Civil Service for the months of work to make this deal happen. I would also like to put on record the debt that I owe to my two predecessors: my right honourable friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands, Karen Bradley, and my right honourable friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, James Brokenshire.

The Good Friday agreement, signed over 20 years ago, brought with it an unprecedented period of peace, prosperity and growth for Northern Ireland. That progress, however, always has and always will be underpinned by the institutions that it created. Now that those institutions have been restored to full working order, we can carry on with the important business of moving Northern Ireland forward and bringing the people of Northern Ireland together. The institutions for north/south and east/west co-operation can work again as intended.

The New Decade, New Approach deal sets out a range of commitments for the Executive, the UK Government and the Irish Government. It commits a new Executive to addressing the immediate challenges facing the health service, reforming the education and justice systems, growing the economy, promoting opportunity and tackling deprivation. The deal does not seek to restore the Executive for its own sake; it offers real reforms aimed at making it more sustainable and transparent, so that the institutions can begin to rebuild trust and confidence with the public. The deal also gives the Executive a seat at the table when we discuss the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU. It solves outstanding cases which have been causing real concern to families, so that all people of Northern Ireland are treated in the same way when bringing family members to this country, akin to Irish citizens in Great Britain.

Yesterday, the Government also announced that we will provide the restored Executive with a £2 billion financial package that will deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and support delivery of the deal. The UK Government’s financial commitment represents the biggest injection of new money in a Northern Ireland talks deal in well over a decade. The funding has already allowed the Executive to pledge to deliver pay parity for nurses in Northern Ireland—the first such intervention in a devolved area—and it will continue to support the Executive to deliver on the priorities for the people of Northern Ireland.

Provided over five years, it will include a guarantee of at least £1 billion of Barnett-based funding to turbocharge infrastructure investment, alongside £1 billion of new resource and capital spending. This will include significant new funding of around £245 million of support for the transformation of public services, including transformation across health, education and justice, and a rapid injection of £550 million to put the Executive’s finances on a sustainable footing, including £200 million over three years to help resolve the nurses pay dispute immediately and deliver pay parity.

Alongside this, the UK Government will ring-fence £45 million of capital and provide resource funding to deliver a Northern Ireland graduate entry medical school in Derry/Londonderry, subject to executive approval. The UK Government will also provide £50 million over two years to support the rollout of ultra low emission public transport, and the agreement will also provide £140 million to address Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. The money will help to strengthen our union and will support the four key areas set out in New Decade, New Approach.

I hope the whole House will join me in welcoming this announcement. I commend this Statement to the House.”

This is a great and considerable achievement, and I place on record the Opposition’s congratulations, in particular to the Secretary of State, Julian Smith, who has done a fabulous job. He has worked at this extremely hard and in great detail. He really is to be commended for the energy and commitment he has put into achieving this. I also congratulate the Tánaiste and Foreign Minister of Ireland, Simon Coveney. After all, the two Governments brokered this deal with the others whom we must congratulate: the political parties in Northern Ireland, together with the civil servants, headed by Sir Jonathan Stephens, and the others who have made this a reality.

I have personal experience of talks in Northern Ireland. They are never easy. Over the past three years, I and others have been taunting the Minister about the slowness of progress in Northern Ireland, but the Statement brings us great hope. As I said, I congratulate him and his Secretary of State on it.

Some questions arising from the Statement still need to be answered. On the financial settlement, the Minister will be aware that the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister have both written to the Prime Minister with some questions on the £2 billion that the Minister mentioned. He knows, of course, that £1 billion of that is a result of Barnett consequentials that would have come to Northern Ireland anyway. Of the remaining £1 billion, I think that £250 million was planned to come as a result of the deal between the DUP and the previous Government. Can the Minister tell us whether, in his view, all the commitments in the settlement will be dealt with by that £2 billion?

A rather novel institution is also being created: a joint board between the Northern Ireland Executive and the United Kingdom Government. I have not seen this at all in 20 years of devolution, where spending has been subject, if that is what the case is, to a board that represents the reserved powers of the Government here in Westminster and, in this case, in Belfast. Perhaps the Minister could elaborate on that.

We have of course been discussing Brexit in this House for some days. Only yesterday morning, we looked at the issue of Brexit and devolution. I am glad that there will now be a Northern Ireland Executive at the table dealing with the negotiations over our leaving the European Union. However, I hope that, bearing in mind that debate yesterday, that presence at the table will be meaningful and that the Government will actually listen to the Northern Ireland Executive, as I hope they will listen to the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government as well.

One of the central parts of this agreement, of course, is cultural and linguistic matters. I am sure that the Minister would agree, being a Scotsman, that the Scottish and Welsh Governments would be more than happy to help the new commissioners in their jobs to ensure that we deal with these issues.

One thing that really is pleasing in the agreement is that there is now a constitutional and legal mechanism, which I hope will be dealt with pretty quickly, that means an Assembly and Government cannot collapse in the same way they did three years ago. This mechanism will ensure a greater guarantee of stability for those institutions in Northern Ireland.

Despite the questions I posed to the Minister, I congratulate him and the Government on a really great breakthrough.

My Lords, we on these Benches certainly welcome the Statement and the fact that the Assembly is up and running and that a new Executive have been formed. It has been a long time coming, but it is welcome. I guess that a buzz of activity will now return to the corridors of Stormont.

There can be little doubt that last year’s elections, for local government and the European Parliament and the general election, have contributed to this outcome. The people of Northern Ireland have made it clear, not only in switching votes away from the two largest parties but in what they told candidates of all parties, that they were fed up with the failure and intransigence of their elected politicians and wanted them to get back to work. They will now need to do so. However, it surely behoves all the parties to give priority to making up for lost time, commitment and resources on the fundamental issues in Northern Ireland.

For example, the figures for the health service in Northern Ireland are truly shocking and would be utterly intolerable if they were apparent on the mainland. The fact that nurses have been reduced to striking because of the of absence of a pay settlement—a strike that is unprecedented—is surely a demonstration of how dangerous the state of things has become. So it is welcome that priority has been given in the Statement to resolving the dispute and delivering pay parity. But I am sure that people, especially those in need of treatment, will want to see a rapid improvement in the delivery of healthcare.

The crisis in education is also serious. Most schools are in deficit and are having to appeal to parents for funds to provide the most basic of services and equipment, including such things as toilet rolls. On a positive note, having visited the Magee campus of the University of Ulster, I very much welcome the £45 million ring-fenced capital resource funding for a graduate-entry medical school and hope that, with agreement, this will go ahead. The university has said consistently that it is poised and ready to do so.

For us, it is particularly good to see our Alliance colleague Naomi Long take up the post of Justice Minister in the Executive. We offer her our heartfelt congratulations. Naomi has been a Member of the House of Commons and a staunch defender of the rule of law. She has often put her personal safety at risk to stand up to criminal and paramilitary elements in Northern Ireland. She will be a committed and effective Minister, and we wish her the very best in her new role.

I particularly welcome the news that integrated schools, such as Cliftonville Integrated Primary School and Glencraig Primary School, will receive a share of the £45 million school enhancement programme that has been announced. The community in Northern Ireland benefits greatly from educating children together. These are great examples of schools where children of different religions, traditions and cultures are welcomed and treated equally. I have visited integrated schools and can see the positive environment they create. Can the Government provide more information on steps that will be taken to improve community relations in Northern Ireland and how they will work with the parties to ensure there is a genuine shared future for all? The Secretary of State made clear that this was not just about getting the Assembly back but trying to move forward to a more positive future.

As the Northern Ireland protocol unfolds and Brexit moves into a detail phase, it is of course welcome that the people of Northern Ireland will have a voice and a seat at the table. But the challenges are immense, new funding is essential and we must avoid backsliding into the old ways. Can the Minister explain how the proposed UK Government-Northern Ireland joint board referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, will operate, who will be on it and what its authority will be?

In conclusion, we all welcome a fresh start. We do not underestimate the challenges of restoring normality or dealing with Brexit but sincerely hope that, rather than just a “New Decade, New Approach”, this will stick and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and the UK for the long term, and that we will not face the prospect of a collapse of the Executive and Assembly again.

My Lords, I welcome the supportive comments of both parties sitting opposite. I have stood here so many times, trying to find new ways of saying that not much has happened. Now, finally, there appears to be the very thing we have all so vehemently wished for, which is a restored Executive.

I will go straight into the questions to allow maximum time for discussion. The joint board itself is an innovation; that is absolutely correct. On the question of who will sit upon it, that will be the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Its purpose is to promote sustainable public services and to bring about transformation. There is a recognition that, after such a long period of time, a number of issues have become bogged down in the absence of decision-making by Ministers and a different momentum is needed to underpin that. The board should meet on a quarterly basis. Noble Lords will also be aware that the Stormont agreement anticipates a fiscal council, which will provide further details of ongoing developments in the budget and useful information to that joint board.

As to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, of how much of the £2 billion is fresh, rather than reheated, money, it is important to stress that the Barnett consequentials have for the first time been guaranteed at £1 billion, irrespective of whether they reach that amount. That is the first element. The second is that there remains £237 million outstanding from the supply and confidence arrangement with the DUP—a separate sum of money that is still, and will be, available to the Northern Ireland Executive. That means that the moneys which I iterated in my remarks are broadly fresh money in that regard. I see the noble Lord, Lord Hain, hovering, or perhaps not; his time will come. It is important to recognise that this is indeed new money, which will do a great deal of good. I am very pleased to announce that the strike by nurses has now been called off because of the acceptance of the settlement, which restores a parity between the different nursing operations across the Irish Sea. That is very important in itself.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, raised the question of waiting times. They are a scandal and, in Northern Ireland right now, a serious issue that needs to be addressed. That is why the incoming Health Minister has made this one of his priorities and why money has been put in place to recognise that this does need to be one of the first areas where serious action can happen.

Again, the graduate medical school is an important step forward. It begins to address one of the deficiency problems: that there are not enough health and medical practitioners coming through the system. This will be a small step in that direction.

The question of the integrated schools will now rest with the devolved Minister, so for once I can say it is really over to him to take this matter forward—do I mean him or do I mean her? There is a question, but hopefully Hansard will correct that if I have given the wrong gender. The point is that this is a devolved matter and will be taken forward in that context.

The coming of Brexit, which has been Banquo’s ghost throughout this entire period, now means that the Assembly will have an opportunity for serious discussion and the constitutional arrangements that have been put in place in relation to the legislative consent Motion and procedures around it will now be available and can be operated by the Assembly and the Members of that institution. These developments will go some way to moving this matter forward. I will stop there and let other questions be asked.

My Lords, as somebody who spent the best part of two and a half years working on this agreement, I warmly welcome the Government’s Statement today and congratulate them on their tremendous achievement in restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland. Like other noble Lords, I also commend the work of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I know from long experience how much effort has gone into this, not just from the current Secretary of State but from his immediate predecessors. Indeed, the text of the agreement reached last weekend is to some of us strikingly familiar.

I have a couple of questions. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that this agreement and financial package finally afford us the opportunity to put the political paralysis of the past three years firmly behind us and to start to build a brighter, more prosperous future for Northern Ireland? Does he agree that devolved power-sharing government is the surest foundation for the governance of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom?

Finally, on the point raised about the joint board by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I spent many years in the Northern Ireland Office. If there is a department that is sometimes guilty of “devolve and forget”, it is the Northern Ireland Office. So I welcome the establishment of the joint board as a very positive development.

I put on record my thanks to my noble friend Lord Caine. I know how much he has done in the Northern Ireland Office to bring about what has been achieved today. The success is owed not to any one individual but to a number of individuals over a very long period of time who have put their shoulder to the wheel. Again, I agree that this should allow us to move from that political paralysis. The key thing here is the sustainability of the institutions, which we must now ensure goes forward. We do not wish to be in anything like this situation again—ever, let alone any time soon.

As to the joint board and the notion of “devolve and forget”, the joint board, I hope, will provide that momentum and push to ensure that, where there are issues that require early engagement on a ministerial level, this will take place and will allow filtering down into the Civil Service on both sides of the water to ensure that we are able to get Northern Ireland back to where it belongs, which is what the people of Northern Ireland richly deserve.

I echo the congratulations that I made fulsomely in my speech during the withdrawal Bill on Tuesday evening. Is this executive joint board a form of conditional devolution? I do not necessarily ask that critically, because the Northern Ireland Executive have had a record of not making tough decisions. Being in government involves choices and, sometimes, tough decisions. I speak from 12 years of my own experience in government. For example, I introduced water charges before we got the settlement of 2007. They were very unpopular and acted as a spur to the agreement we got. They were immediately abolished by the new Executive, which deprived the water industry of the capital investment and finance it needed to modernise, and the consequences are to be seen. Also, combined water charges and household taxes in Northern Ireland are half the average across England, Scotland and Wales. They need to raise more of their own revenue.

The noble Lord is right to bring this matter before us. Restoring the Executive might end up looking like the easy bit of the operation when we start to see what serious challenges over revenue the incoming Executive are confronted by. Very difficult decisions will need to be taken, and I hope that the joint board will be able to operate in a spirit of consensus in that regard. It is the job of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland not to instruct this process but to support it as it goes forward. There will be difficult decisions in health and on the wider education question, and each will require Ministers to step up to the plate, which is how it should be. They must then face the electorate in due course to see whether they have done what they wanted done; they will be judged not by us sitting in this place but by the elections yet to come.

My Lords, I do not disagree with anything that has been said about the agreement and I am pleased to see a working Assembly once again. However, it concerns me as someone who was involved in the Belfast agreement that we appear to have had an inefficient Administration while the Assembly was not in place. We have not resolved the RHI issue, and it is important that we do. It is impoverishing farmers, in so far as we have not had equality on it with the rest of the United Kingdom or, indeed, with the south of Ireland. When will that be resolved?

Further to that, it appears to someone who was involved in 1998 that the Irish Government have been allowed to infringe strand 1 of the agreement. I hope that the Minister can address this. Moreover, why has nothing been done to discipline those responsible for finding money under the counter and paying £10,000 to someone who claimed to be annoyed by the Queen’s portrait hanging in their building? I advise the Minister, with respect, that those issues cannot be brushed under the carpet as they have been year after year. If we are to have a successful Assembly, we need a degree of openness. That starts with government here at Westminster.

The noble Lord is right to remind us that the RHI scandal has been a challenge for all in Northern Ireland, not least those affected by it financially. The agreement brokered with the five parties recognised that issues were brought to the fore as the inquiry unfolded regarding the working of government and the responsibility and role of special advisers and the Civil Service. Within the agreement that has been reached is a strong view that this needs to be reconsidered and examined in a way that provides a proper structure to ensure that such a situation never happens again. I believe the report of the RHI inquiry will be published soon, but that is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive—it is quite nice to be able to say that for the first time in a very long time. As to the other questions raised by the noble Lord, he has raised them in the past, and I understand why, but at this moment I will comment on them no further.

My Lords, like other noble Lords I welcome the Statement. The Minister has come to this House on a number of occasions with negativity on Northern Ireland. This is a very positive Statement, and I and my party see it as a new beginning for Northern Ireland. After three years we now have a working Assembly and in particular an Executive made up of the five main parties in Northern Ireland. We have Ministers elected by the people of Northern Ireland and accountable to them, which is vital.

Yes, this Executive will face many challenges; there are huge challenges out there, but I have no doubt that they will face them with good will, whether in health, education, economic development or investment. I have no doubt whatever that they will do what they can to represent all the people of Northern Ireland. This Executive can show a lead to the people of Northern Ireland on how both communities in every community can live in peace and harmony. That is what this Executive need to be about.

I welcome the funding coming with the package. I know there may be some questions as to whether it is new money or from the Barnett formula or whatever, but it must be welcome. I also welcome, at long last, the £45 million of capital ring-fenced for the medical school in my own city of Londonderry. This has been ongoing for some time and I welcome it very much. I know that many, if not all, of the politicians in this city will welcome what has been achieved. I pay tribute to the Minister, his officials and the people who were at the coalface of getting this agreement over the line; after several weeks, several hours and several days, we got there. This whole House and the other place should welcome this agreement in moving Northern Ireland forward.

The noble Lord is right that this agreement can move Northern Ireland forward. The important thing to recognise is that, because of the absence of an Executive, it has slipped back. In moving it forward we are just trying to bring it into parity with the other nations in the United Kingdom. That is important to emphasise. A journey now has to be taken, and it will not be achieved quickly or in a single step. I am pleased to be able to welcome the £45 million for the city of Derry/Londonderry, given the number of times I have not been able to talk about it because I was never able to make that clear. Now I can make it very clear indeed. I also personally pay tribute to the officials in the Northern Ireland Office. I know how much they care, how hard they worked on this and how much they have helped me as I have tried to deliver on these issues as well. I hope now that this deal does what it says on the tin and makes us move into the new decade in the right way.

My Lords, I too welcome this very much, but I hope that the Government have learned lessons. You do not just sign a peace agreement and then forget about it. The Good Friday agreement continues to need daily work from all the people involved. Also, we should have learned from the last three years that if a Government look as though they are favouring and making a particular relationship with one party, as against working with and treating all parties equally, which the Good Friday agreement said that both Dublin and London should do, those parties then have no incentive to get back together and really make sure that they run affairs and are accountable for how things are run in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Government have learned those lessons and that we can all work to make sure that we do whatever we can to support and enable that Executive to work.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. There are lessons to be learned for this Government and for the parties in Northern Ireland; indeed, some of them are quite hard lessons. It is the people of Northern Ireland who often make the judgment, as they have done in elections gone by.

I am aware that this process is at a very delicate stage. It is almost like the stage when you see the first green shoots of your seeds coming through and you think that you have a harvest, but that is actually when you need to tend to them most carefully. We must all do that now to ensure that we reap the harvest of what we have achieved over the past few days. I am aware that each party will now be judged on how it tends the crop before we reach the harvest.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend warmly. Does he acknowledge that some important unfinished business has been taken forward in your Lordships’ House in the absence of the Executive? In particular, I refer to what I call the Hain initiative on providing proper compensation for those who suffered so much during the years of anguish and trouble. Can he assure the House that there will be no further impediment to implementing those measures?

My noble friend is right to raise this issue. He will recall, as I am sure other noble Lords will, that the legislation we took forward before Christmas was taken forward by this House and this Government. It was not dependent on the outcome of a new Executive. As a consequence, it will continue to the timetable that we set. I believe—again, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for his work on this—that the compensation for victims should be in place no later than May this year. That is something to be welcomed by all in the newly reformed Executive, I hope.

My Lords, I say as one who participated in the establishment of these institutions that they should never have been collapsed in the first place, but I am glad to see them returned.

However, I draw the House’s attention to the part of the Statement that says that this deal was accepted by the main parties

“as a basis to re-enter devolved Government.”

That is not true. This is not an agreement. It is a government Statement and a Statement of the British and Irish Governments collectively. It was shoved into our hands at 8.30 pm last Thursday. We had never seen a number of the matters contained in it before. Our participation in the Executive is based exclusively on our rights under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, whereby our position in the Assembly is related to our electoral support. We have taken on the health portfolio, which I have drawn to the House’s attention on many occasions because it is in such a terrible state. I hope that we will succeed in that endeavour but I want to make it clear that, for instance, we have never seen the legacy proposals and this business of 100 days before—and we do not accept the legacy proposals. We never have. We have argued against them since Stormont House in 2014.

However, there are many good things in the Government’s Statement. There is potential. But do not create the impression that everybody accepts everything that is in this paper—we do not. It would be unfortunate if we clouded people’s thinking into believing that that is the case.

Nevertheless, we are there because we want to solve the problems that I and others have brought to the House’s attention time and again, such as the disgraceful state of affairs in our health service and many of our other public services. We will play as positive a role as possible but we will not be tied down to a Statement by two Governments containing provisions of which we had no knowledge and over which we had no say.

In many respects, the noble Lord echoes the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong: this is at a delicate stage and we have to see how it will grow into a new, fully fledged, functioning Executive addressing each of these matters. I am pleased in one respect, in the light of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that the health portfolio is now held by his party. I suspect that the incoming Minister, Robin Swann, will be getting letters from his friend, the noble Lord, which he can look forward to as much as I did.

I meant that in a nice way, not a bad way. Again, I note that there will be challenges. The noble Lord is right to note that the legacy question will be one of them. There is no question but that will be a challenge but I hope that we can see the direction of travel and I hope, in the light of the document before us, that we can achieve the outcome we all so dearly wish for.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on achieving this agreement. It represents a good news day. Some of us have not had a good news day for many years, so it is a nice thing. I want to raise an issue that I have raised with the Minister before, but it is particularly relevant in the new context. Can he get the Home Office to approach the Health Minister, I think, and get Northern Ireland to agree to take some child refugees? It has told me that it will; I am assured by both Belfast and Derry that there is a willingness to do this. Can the Government please initiate that process?

It is a good news day. That issue is now available for the Northern Ireland Executive to push forward. The noble Lord will be aware that one of the challenges we faced—we wrestled with it in different directions—was accommodation in different parts of the Province. I hope that the incoming Executive can make progress and that they recognise their wider responsibilities under the Geneva convention, as well as the wider question of young people and children in this regard.

My Lords, I add my voice to the warm welcome for the restoration of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland and for a common programme for government that focuses on the priorities of the people of Northern Ireland. Does my noble friend agree that, to achieve better results, the Executive need to operate in less of a departmental, siloed way and adopt a greater sense of collective responsibility, which I hope will be reflected in a reformed and strengthened Ministerial Code?

I could not put it better myself. I pay tribute to my noble predecessor’s endeavours in this regard. There needs to be greater recognition of collective responsibility: of pulling together and pulling on the rope in the same direction. I hope that is embedded in the newly established Executive.