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Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill

Volume 818: debated on Monday 24 January 2022

Third Reading

Moved by

Moved by

My Lords, I promise to be slightly less dramatic. I first want to express my sincere gratitude to all noble Lords who have participated in proceedings on this short Bill and to thank them for their thoughtful and sometimes challenging contributions, not least on the very odd occasion when the debate has strayed beyond the narrow confines of the Bill.

I welcome the positive engagement and constructive support for the Bill from all sides of the House and put on record my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and all noble Lords from Northern Ireland itself.

I also thank the Bill team at the Northern Ireland Office, officials in the Northern Ireland Assembly and, last but not least, my noble friend, Lord Younger of Leckie—not just for his support and very wise counsel on this piece of legislation, but also for his handling of much Northern Ireland business in your Lordships’ House in recent times.

The Bill has been debated extensively during its passage and I am sure that noble Lords will be relieved to hear that, in accordance with Standing Orders, I do not intend to rehearse its provisions again. It is a faithful implementation of a number of measures contained in the New Decade, New Approach document, which paved the way for the re-establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland in January 2020 and was itself the product of detailed and lengthy negotiations over a period of nearly three years.

The purpose of the Bill is to seek to give greater resilience to the institutions established under the 1998 Belfast agreement and to provide for greater continuity in decision-making. I am pleased that with the support of opposition parties we have been able to agree on early commencement of the important measures contained in it.

This Government remain deeply committed to the implementation of the Belfast agreement and its successors, and to building a stable, prosperous and shared Northern Ireland, within this United Kingdom, for everybody—a Northern Ireland where politics works, the economy grows and society is stronger and more united. I hope that this Bill, while in no way a panacea, can make a contribution to supporting those fundamental objectives. I beg to move

My Lords, I add our thanks to the Minister. As we have just heard in the drama a moment ago, a Minister’s life is not an easy one. I think that we are all still reeling from the shock resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, who clearly cared a great deal about his work. His colleagues will mourn his loss from the Front Benches, and this House will admire his integrity. He may go down in history for the way he resigned, showing his integrity.

I thank the Minister for his work on this Bill, which is, I think, the first one that he has taken through the House, although his commitment, interest and work on Northern Ireland issues for many years have preceded him. In many ways this was a short, perhaps relatively non-controversial, Bill, though we had our moments. I thank him for the way in which he and his Bill team engaged with noble Lords across the House. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, if she were here, would say the same, and would thank him for his meetings.

We had our own dramatic moments as we prepared to come to the House to debate a particular amendment. We heard the Prime Minister say, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, that that amendment would not be moved, when we had all expected it in the afternoon. So perhaps this is the time for dramatic moments in the House. Nevertheless, I add our commitment and our thanks to the noble Lord. We await the further Bill on Northern Ireland that we were supposed to be getting and had expected—the legacy Bill—which will also, I am sure, involve detailed discussions, and I hope that he will be willing to engage in the same way with us on that Bill as on this.

My Lords, I have a few words to say on this Bill. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Caine, on getting his first Bill through Parliament, and for the very polite way in which he dealt with all the questions and so on. I thank, too, the shadow Front-Bench Members for their willingness to meet some of us who had concerns about aspects of the Bill.

I have to say that the Library did not even have a copy of New Decade, New Approach. It is a very detailed agreement, and of course the Bill deals only with a small part of it; it does not deal with the most crucial part facing Northern Ireland at the moment, where officially the Government were meant to legislate on Northern Ireland’s businesses to guarantee unfettered access. That is part of New Decade, New Approach, so let us not kid ourselves that it has been put through; these are the bits which seem to be able to get through very quickly. Yet even on 14 January, the noble Lord, Lord Caine, sent a letter saying that he was putting forward an amendment to allow the same situation so there would not be a cliff edge when a Member of the Assembly was elected to this Parliament, and they could stay to the end of their term. That suddenly got dropped.

This may all look like it is sweetness and light, but I have to warn noble Lords that Northern Ireland is in a very difficult situation. This is a sticking plaster of a Bill for the situation in Northern Ireland; we have a system of government that is totally different from any other part of the United Kingdom and would not be tolerated in any other part of the United Kingdom. That needs to be said.

This week we may well see real difficulty because now, legally, it has more or less been proved, and will be proved later in the week, that the Northern Ireland Executive should have taken a decision and formally agreed to have checks at the Irish Sea border that has been set up. This has not happened, therefore later on this week we will probably see the Northern Ireland Executive having to take a decision one way or another on that, which will be extremely interesting.

We have also had another meeting between the Foreign Secretary and Šefčovič, with a similar outcome. They just repeat the same statement every time: “Further talks today”, “Constructive atmosphere”, “Teams continue intensive discussions.” This cannot go on. This House needs to face up to reality: Northern Ireland is in a very difficult position and it needs to be helped by being part of the United Kingdom and by your Lordships. Having said that, I accept that the Bill is going through, and I welcome those parts of it that I agree with.

My Lords, on behalf of my colleagues, I express appreciation to the Minister for the courtesy and the engagement that we have had during the progress of the Bill. I agree with the noble Baroness on how the Bill is a small sticking plaster over a major wound that is still in Northern Ireland politics. That gaping wound is the Northern Ireland protocol, which is causing untold damage, both constitutionally and economically, to the Province. That is not acceptable; however, I accept that the Bill is passing in this House today.

Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.