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The Future of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Volume 820: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Statement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 24 March (HCWS716) in which he stated his willingness “if necessary” to commission abortion services in Northern Ireland after the Assembly election in May, what assessment they have made about the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

My Lords, the Government’s assessment is that the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly should not be affected in any way by any decision arising from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State’s Written Statement of last week.

My Lords, with most of Northern Ireland’s economic laws being made in Brussels without any democratic input, and with unpopular decisions in the Assembly with which the Government disagree being yanked back to Westminster by Ministers, do the Government believe that devolved government in Northern Ireland really has a future?

I am tempted to give my noble friend a one-word answer, which is yes. However, I assure him, if he needs assuring, that this Government believe, head, heart and soul, in the Belfast agreement and the devolved institutions it establishes and we wish to see the restoration of a fully functioning Executive after the Assembly election on 5 May. My noble friend will be aware that the background to my right honourable friend’s Statement of last week is the clear legal requirement placed upon him by Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 regarding the commissioning of abortion services, a legal requirement which still stands.

My Lords, will the Minister use his good offices to ensure that democratic values are upheld in Northern Ireland following all the attacks on democracy this week and on those who uphold peace and reconciliation? Will he also use his good offices to ensure that the institutions are up and running following the election—that is, all the institutions according to the three-stranded approach of the Good Friday agreement—so that local decisions, as per the devolution settlement, can be made by local MLAs who understand and appreciate the issues of their constituents—

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and I completely agree with her points. In respect of the elections, of course people ought to be able to campaign, put up election posters and canvass without any intimidation or fear of intimidation in any part of Northern Ireland. That is part of the democratic process. On the re-establishment of the institutions, I absolutely agree with her. It is essential for Northern Ireland that all the institutions established by the Belfast agreement, under strands 1, 2 and 3, function properly and in accordance with the way they were set out in the agreement. We are fully committed to ensuring that happens after the election.

My Lords, I will be briefer. The inability of the Northern Ireland Executive to meet following the resignation of the First Minister has led to a major backlog of decision-making, including the release of significant public funds. If the Secretary of State is able to step in to make decisions relating to the commissioning of reproductive health services, with which I agree, why can he not order the immediate release of £36.2 million of UK taxpayers’ money to Northern Ireland football clubs through the sub-regional stadia programme?

I am grateful for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, regarding duties under Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act. He will be aware that Northern Ireland departments are still able to spend money into next year and I hope the matters to which he refers will be decisions taken properly and rightly by an incoming Executive after 5 May.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not acceptable, two years after Parliament passed regulations setting up the framework for safe abortion services, that women and girls in Northern Ireland still do not have access to high-quality abortion and post-abortion care? Is it not the case, as the Minister expressed in his recent Written Statement, that without access to services in Northern Ireland, women and girls are placed at high risk of harm? If the Secretary of State is in the unfortunate position of needing to pass further regulations following the Assembly elections in May, what is the expected timeframe for these regulations and for the provision of services?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for his question and for the constructive and bipartisan manner in which he approaches this issue, and many others, when it comes to Northern Ireland. I agree with him completely. The amendment put forward by his honourable friend in the other place was in 2019, and since then this Parliament has passed regulations setting out a framework for the delivery of abortion services. It has passed a directive from the Secretary of State on the Executive to have services in place by tomorrow—that is the deadline. We are still waiting for those services to be delivered, so our view is that the Executive have had ample time to resolve this issue. So far as a timetable is concerned, I cannot give the noble Lord precise dates, but we expect the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to move quickly on this. Should that not be forthcoming, the Secretary of State will intervene after the elections in the way in which he set out in his Written Statement.

My Lords, is it not the case that abortion was imposed on the people of Northern Ireland by this Parliament in 2019 against their will, and in the event that the power-sharing Executive is not reformed after the election and there is no Assembly, what plans do the Government have to address the consequential democratic deficit, and to make arrangements to ensure that the voice of the people of Northern Ireland is heard?

I completely understand the strength of feeling of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, on this issue, and her very long-standing interest in it. I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the election and what will happen immediately thereafter. As I have said, we would like to see an Executive up and running as quickly as possible after the election. But the devolution settlement itself does not absolve the Secretary of State from the responsibilities placed upon him by this sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, what assessment has my noble friend made of safeguarding provisions for young women under 18 in assessing abortion in Northern Ireland—in particular, for the penalties for abortion coercion?

My noble friend—my Whip—makes a very important point. The commitment set out in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 is that the commission services in Northern Ireland should be compliant with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The framework that we set out in, I believe, 2021, to give effect to that will be CEDAW-compliant and deal with the issues raised by my noble friend.

My Lords, it might be worth pointing out to your Lordships’ House that the reality is that there will be very little chance of an Executive being formed after the May election unless the protocol has gone. Following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, everything that is disagreed about in the Assembly comes to this House, so what is the point of having an Assembly in Northern Ireland?

In preparing for this question, I would never have anticipated in a million years that the noble Baroness would have raised the protocol. She is aware of the Government’s position on the protocol; as the Secretary of State said to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee last week, it is not sustainable in its present form, requiring very drastic and radical change, and the Government are working with the EU to try to bring that about. In the absence of agreement, she is aware that we will take whatever action is required to remedy the situation. Regarding interventions in devolved areas, I remind the noble Baroness that she was a member of a government who in 2000 intervened directly in a devolved matter: the Northern Ireland Executive could not agree on the flying of flags from public buildings, and the Labour Government legislated here.

My Lords, rather than interfering in sensitive matters devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, does the Minister not accept that the Secretary of State would be better to use his efforts in removing the Northern Ireland protocol, thus protecting Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom, because failure to do so will undermine the possibility of any Executive being restored?

In respect of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, will be aware of my very strong unionist convictions and my strong personal support for Northern Ireland’s position as part of this United Kingdom. So far as the protocol is concerned, I think I have set out the Government’s position: we are committed to making the necessary changes to the protocol, which is unsustainable in its current form.