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Northern Ireland: Violence

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 13 April 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland, what representations they are making to the Northern Ireland Executive to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

My Lords, the UK Government take their responsibilities to protect the provisions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement extremely seriously. The Northern Ireland Executive are united in their condemnation of recent unrest. The Government will continue to work alongside the Executive to support a peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has met political, community and faith leaders to call for calm and the Government will continue facilitating further constructive discussions over the coming days.

Mindful of the fact that all the church leaders on the island of Ireland have issued a statement urging political unity, what immediate action will be taken by the British and Irish Governments, acting jointly as co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, and working and talking with the political parties in Northern Ireland? Will they hold an immediate meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to address the need for renewed political stability, an end to street violence and tension and a strategy to end poverty and marginalisation —in so doing, adhering to the key principles of the Good Friday agreement, those of peace and reconciliation?

As the noble Baroness will respect, the immediate priority is to provide the Executive and the PSNI with the support needed to manage the current unrest. However, we continue to consider a range of options to support their efforts in the medium term. These include the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference—the BIIGC, to which the noble Baroness referred—which is an important element of strand 3 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and stands to promote bilateral co-operation at all levels and in all matters of mutual interest.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the recent disgraceful, totally unjustified and counterproductive violence in Northern Ireland has a number of different causes, many of them going back many years? To suggest that this is solely about Brexit is wilfully ignorant of the situation in Northern Ireland. Is it not the case that this Government remain wholly committed to upholding all strands of the Belfast agreement and, in addition to a robust criminal justice response, the Executive urgently need to focus on those policies designed to build a genuinely shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland?

My noble friend makes some sensible points. He is right that the reasons for the unrest are complex and multifarious, some to do with localised issues. The House will know that 10 April this year marks 23 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was signed—an achievement of which the UK, Ireland and the US are justifiably proud and which led to transformative change. Today it falls to the people of Northern Ireland to decide what sort of society they want. It is clear that they are choosing the right path, which is to build an inclusive, prosperous and hopeful society that builds on the hard-won peace.

I support what my noble friend Lady Ritchie has said. Should the Government not decide today to pledge themselves to calling and meeting urgently the parties involved 23 years ago—the British Government, the Irish Government and the United States, perhaps including the EU—and maybe bringing in other moderators to help put the deal together? We cannot now, 23 years on, go on like this. We need to take the next steps to implement parts of the Good Friday agreement that have not been implemented and to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have a decent and peaceful life and that children can be educated.

To reassure the noble Baroness, and to go further than I did before, much work is going on. The Northern Ireland Secretary is in contact with Northern Ireland’s party leaders. The collective priority at present is to work together to ensure public safety. The noble Baroness will know that the Northern Ireland Executive issued a joint statement on 8 April, which is a very welcome sign of solidarity against the despicable violence and which declared their support for law and order and policing. I assure the noble Baroness that nothing is off the table and they are doing their very best to resolve the current unrest.

My Lords, I also strongly condemn the recent criminal violence. Sadly, 23 years on from the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, segregation, division and poverty are still far too much a part of society in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister regard it as acceptable that only 7% of young people in Northern Ireland are in integrated education? Will he undertake to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive as a matter of urgency to promote measures to overcome these divisions in the education sector?

The noble Baroness makes a very important and specific point about education. It is appalling that there are reports of teenagers coming on to the streets when, in fact, they should be going back to school—schools have opened—and then back home. I applaud the achievements of the community leaders, who are working extremely hard in the various parts of Northern Ireland where there has been unrest to encourage these pupils to go home and to stop adults encouraging them.

I join others in saying how deeply disappointing it is that, 23 years later, we are witnessing unjustifiable violence on the streets. However, Her Majesty’s Government have responsibilities with regard to the agreement, and I contend that, in fact, they themselves have set an example and have broken it by changing the economic status of Northern Ireland without either consultation or consent contained in the terms of the protocol. Will the noble Viscount encourage his right honourable friend in the other place to hold all-party discussions? Trying to do deals behind closed doors with a limited number of parties has not worked in the past, and the same mistakes are being repeated time and again.

I am listening to the noble Lord’s experience and knowledge. As he will know, the Belfast agreement provided a foundation for growth and a framework for peace. I reassure him that my right honourable friend in the other place, Brandon Lewis, has been working extremely hard. He has met the five parties and other community leaders to help the Northern Ireland Executive to resolve these matters.

My Lords, having been very much involved in the negotiations leading to the Belfast agreement, I ask whether the Minister can confirm that it has already been breached by the protocol and that the economic and political status of Northern Ireland has changed without the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland, which was a requirement of the Belfast agreement? Since there is this terrible trouble on the streets, which could continue, will the Minister please encourage the European community to identify the real causes of the unrest in Northern Ireland?

I am happy to report that there has been calm over the last two days, particularly last night, as the noble Lord will know. As he will also know, the protocol was designed to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, east/west as well as north/south. The gains of the peace process prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, when we negotiated the Good Friday agreement 23 years ago, we knew that the only way to success was through intensive dialogue and negotiation. While I agree that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is doing his best to talk to the political parties there, is it not now time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, has said, that the Government meet the Irish Government at prime ministerial level in what is known as the BIIGC—a specific body, set up by the Good Friday agreement to deal with matters like this one? Frankly, we need the spirit of the agreement now in these difficult times.

As the noble Lord will know, I alluded to the BIIGC earlier. The Government are very aware of the ongoing concerns of some in the unionist and loyalist community over recent months. However, I echo the words of the noble Lord: the right way to express concerns and frustrations is through dialogue, engagement and the democratic process, not through violence or disorder. As I said earlier, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland met with community, faith and political leaders last week. I reassure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend in the other place is in regular touch with the Irish Government.

My Lords, Brexit may not be the only cause of the disorder in Northern Ireland, but it is a catalyst. There have been encouraging press reports in recent days about the progress of technical talks on resolving outstanding issues in the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Can the Minister tell us a bit more about this, saying when these technical talks might move to a political phase and result in an agreement to streamline checks and paperwork, while respecting the law?

I am happy to give whatever information I can to help the noble Baroness. The UK Government are committed to working rapidly with the EU through the Joint Committee to address the outstanding concerns about the protocol to restore confidence on the ground. It is welcome that the UK and EU are able to use the Ireland/Northern Ireland Specialised Committee, which they did as recently as 26 March, to take stock of outstanding issues. Following that, the UK Government have proposed a work programme to the EU—the first step in working jointly to make progress across the full range of issues that remain. However, as the noble Baroness will tell me, this is urgent.

My Lords, the human rights flaw at the heart of the Northern Ireland protocol is that, outwith the Good Friday agreement, binding law and regulation can be amended in a foreign state—in the EU—and then have direct effect in Northern Ireland without any democratic say by the people there. Does my noble friend agree that a first step to addressing this would be to change the protocol so that all binding law and regulation in Northern Ireland is made in a democratic forum where Northern Ireland electors are represented—that is, in this Parliament or, if it is a devolved matter, in the Northern Ireland Assembly? This would strengthen the Good Friday agreement in spirit and action.

All sides need to continue to work together to ensure that the protocol can deliver these objectives and ensure that Northern Ireland continues to build on the gains of the peace process. We need to create the conditions that allow people and businesses to adapt to and implement the new requirements of the protocol. Ultimately, the protocol’s fate depends on the political representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. The Stormont Assembly will vote on it in 2024, as agreed in the protocol.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, has emphasised the widespread anxiety throughout Northern Ireland at the recent events on our streets, and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has endorsed that emphasis. Does the Minister agree with me that, at present, all parties must take the utmost care in their use of language, which can so easily be used as an excuse for violence? We must use every means possible to prevent us drifting back to the dark days of the Troubles. Does he agree that we need to emphasise care in what we say?

Notwithstanding the barking in the background of the noble and right reverend Lord’s call, it was a serious question. He is absolutely right: as well as the work that my right honourable friend in the other place is doing with community leaders, measured language is very important. We do not want to see again these disgraceful scenes and the reckless, dangerous and criminal behaviour on the streets. Of course, this week’s events do not reflect the true spirit of Northern Ireland—the creativity, the optimism, and the determination never to return to the conflict and division of the past.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that at least some people in Northern Ireland believe that the British Government are not as interested in what is going on there as previous British Governments used to be? Furthermore—[Inaudible]—the Government made repeated statements that the protocol—[Inaudible] —not impose any constraint. The Government have to think harder about how we treat the people of Northern Ireland—[Inaudible]—honestly and properly.

I am afraid that we missed the point from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, because of connection problems, so I suggest that we move on to the next speaker on the list, with apologies to him.

I am sure that the Minister will agree to write to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in response to the question. I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey.

My Lords, no one in government should underestimate the frustration, the disappointment and even the anger across Northern Ireland at the protocol, but it is not the only reason for the recent violence, which we all the condemn. There is an underlying feeling that the east-west relations aspect of the Belfast agreement has been disregarded and that north-south relations have been given more importance. When will Her Majesty’s Government stop taking the neutral position that they seem to adopt? Like the Irish Government, who speak up for Irish nationalism, when will the United Kingdom Government start speaking up for the British union?

We have been doing just this. The union is very important. We have said again and again that Northern Ireland is a firm part of the United Kingdom. On the noble Baroness’s question relating to east-west, I suspect that she is referring to the current challenges and the details that need to be sorted out as a result of Brexit. Much work has been done to ensure that food supplies, parcels et cetera are delivered to Northern Ireland from Great Britain and that supermarket shelves are full, as they should be.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. My apologies to the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Dubs. We will have a brief pause to allow the Chamber to reassemble in readiness for the next business.