The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 9 November.
“With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the issues arising from the failure of the devolved Government of Northern Ireland—the Northern Ireland Executive—to form. The overriding priority of this Government is to implement, maintain and protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
‘Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally.’
‘that has not been possible. However, our commitment remains absolutely clear’.
The Government believe that this is the moment for restoration of the devolved institutions
‘and will work to that end as a matter of utmost priority... My predecessors have all referred to critical times for Northern Ireland, and there have been many, but this year is indeed critical’.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/1/06; col. 287.]
I can see you are thinking that you might have heard those words before, Mr Deputy Speaker. That is because you have: they were spoken by the then Secretary of State and right honourable Member for Neath at this Dispatch Box back in 2006.
Although these are different times, with different issues affecting Northern Ireland, I and this Government believe strongly that the people of Northern Ireland deserve a functioning Assembly and Executive where locally elected representatives can address the issues that matter most to the people who elect them. Back in May, people cast their votes in Northern Ireland to give their communities a voice in Stormont. However, for six months the parties have not come together.
On 28 October, the deadline for forming an Executive, as set out in the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022, passed. That is hugely disappointing. As a result, I am bound by law to call new elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, as set out in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. Those elections will have to take place within 12 weeks of 28 October.
Since 28 October, I have been engaging widely in Northern Ireland with the parties, with businesses, with community representatives and with members of the public. I have also spoken with other international interlocutors. I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of those to whom I have spoken think that an election at this time would be most unwelcome.
What people would welcome is having their devolved institutions up and running, because they are worried to see a massive £660 million black hole in this year’s public finances at the same time that their public services are deteriorating. They are worried that almost 187,000 people in Northern Ireland have been waiting for more than a year for their first out-patient appointment. They are worried that the share of working-age adults with no formal qualifications is higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. There is also legitimate and deep concern about the functioning of the Northern Ireland protocol. That concern is felt across Northern Ireland and very strongly indeed in the unionist community.
The one thing on which everyone agrees is that we must try to find a way through the current impasse, in which I have a legal duty to call an election that few people want and that everyone tells me will change nothing. I will therefore introduce legislation to provide a short, straightforward extension to the period for Executive formation. The current period will be extended by six weeks to 8 December, with the potential for a further six-week extension to 19 January if necessary. The aim is to create the time and space necessary for talks between the UK Government and the European Commission to develop, and for the Northern Ireland parties to work together to restore the devolved institutions as soon as possible.
As I stand here, the Northern Ireland Executive have no Ministers in post. That means no Ministers to make the choices that deliver the public services that people rely on, to react to the budgetary pressures that schools, hospitals and other key services face, or to deliver the energy support payments that this Government have made available to people across the rest of the United Kingdom. Before leaving his post, the Northern Ireland Finance Minister highlighted a £660 million in-year budget black hole, but there are no Ministers in the Executive to address it.
As civil servants do not have the legal authority to tackle these issues in the absence of an Executive, I must take limited but necessary steps to protect Northern Ireland’s public finances and the delivery of public services. As has been done before, the legislation that I introduce will enable Northern Ireland departments to support public service delivery, make a small number of vital public appointments such as those to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and address the serious budgetary concerns that I have mentioned.
At a time when so many people are concerned about the cost of living in Northern Ireland, I know that the public there will welcome a further measure that I intend, which will address another matter that was addressed by the former Secretary of State whom I quoted earlier. People across Northern Ireland are frustrated that Members of the Legislative Assembly continue to draw a full salary while not performing all the duties that they were elected to do. I will therefore be asking for this House’s support to enable me to reduce MLAs’ salaries appropriately.
Let me end by repeating that the overriding priority of this Government is to implement, maintain and protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which has been the bedrock of so much of the progress in Northern Ireland over the past quarter-century. In recent days, some people have called for joint authority in Northern Ireland. Let me say that that will not be considered. The UK Government are absolutely clear that the consent principle governs the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, under which Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom. We will not support any arrangements that are inconsistent with that principle. In addition, we remain fully committed to the long-established three-strand approach to Northern Ireland affairs.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, I have found myself reflecting on the fact that political progress in Northern Ireland has so often required courage, understanding and compromise. I hope that the measures that I have announced in my Statement will allow some extra time for those qualities to be displayed once again. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I very much welcome the Statement made in the other place last week. First, it says that there should be no elections in Northern Ireland, and I agree with that. I see no point at all in having elections, given the fact that it would harden positions and polarise the situation. It would also, of course, cost £7 million, which could be better spent on the health service. Secondly, I believe the implication in the Statement is that we are looking forward to celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, and that that could be a suitable time for which the negotiations ahead of us might aim. As the Secretary of State said in the other place, there are also huge unresolved issues in Northern Ireland at the moment. The health service is in a critical position and decisions are now going to be made by civil servants. That is not a good state of affairs, and I hope that these issues will be resolved as soon as possible.
The Minister will know, because he has been involved in these matters for a long time, that ultimately the solution to all this can be resolved only in Belfast, even though the negotiations are between London and Brussels—of course they are, because we are talking about the Northern Ireland protocol, and those negotiations should obviously now continue at pace. We are told that, so far, we have had technical discussions between civil servants from London and Brussels. I hope that Ministers from the Foreign Office are now able to negotiate much more assuredly than they have over the last number of months. As the Minister also knows, whatever they do about the Northern Ireland protocol, the solution that is ultimately found has to be resolved by agreement between the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland.
I understand the problems that unionists have with the protocol and the feeling that their identity has been subject to a lot of strain because of it, but there is an issue among nationalists too, who, by and large, believe that the protocol is something that should happen. It is not easy, of course, but it never has been for negotiations so far as Northern Ireland is concerned.
The one thing I would stress in what I ask the Minister is that the negotiations themselves should be very different from what has occurred over recent months. First, there should be a proper process and plan, and there should be a timetable and a structure. There has been ad hocery, if you like, over recent months, where we find that Ministers go to Northern Ireland, spend some time with the party leaders and come back again. I am not saying that that is a worthless occupation but it is just not sufficient. There has to be a proper, structured plan for talks over the next few months. There is a huge need for those talks to be held among the political parties in Northern Ireland. Yes, the Secretary of State and Ministers must talk with the party leaders, but there is a strong case for the party leaders in Northern Ireland and the Government to come together in round-table talks. That is how progress can be made, and I hope that can happen as well.
I hope that the new Prime Minister and the new Taoiseach—or the new-ish Taoiseach, by Christmas—will be able to get together as well. The Minister knows, as Members of the House know, that, ultimately, what is needed in Northern Ireland is the push that comes from prime ministerial engagement. That is very important too.
The other issue is that, over the last number of months, the negotiation has been seen as a European Union-United Kingdom negotiation. Of course, that is absolutely proper, but it seems to me that the Prime Minister meeting the Taoiseach the other day was a good sign in indicating that the two guardians of the Good Friday agreement—the British Government and the Irish Government—have a very special part to play in ensuring that they get together to deal with issues where is it appropriate, particularly of course on strand 2, north-south relations, and strand 3, east-west relations.
The months ahead present us with huge opportunities. They are difficult ones—but it has always been difficult, as I said earlier. When we get to April, I hope that we will have arrived at a situation where the institutions are up and running; the people in Northern Ireland can govern their own affairs; the institutions are there for all the people of Northern Ireland, whichever community they come from; and that we do not drift towards direct rule. That is the last thing that anybody wants—nobody wants it—and I hope that we will see progress in the months ahead.
My Lords, I too am grateful for the opportunity to discuss last week’s Statement. An election at this time, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said, would have been an expensive distraction and would almost certainly not have resulted in any kind of breakthrough in the impasse. It is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. Not only does he speak with such great authority and common sense but, for many of us, me included, he symbolises a more optimistic time in Northern Ireland politics.
Nearly 25 years on since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, it is very important to recall that it was not always like this. There have been times of great hope and optimism. The peace process has previously been held up as a positive example to many other troubled parts of the world. But, as the Minister knows all too well, with all his years of experience, those more optimistic times did not happen without hard work, dedication, dialogue and commitment at the highest level. Mutual respect and trust were absolutely key to this.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I appeal to the Prime Minister to take an active role in finding a solution and a way forward out of this impasse, for it is in the interests of the whole United Kingdom for him to do so. Continued stalemate in Belfast is damaging to our reputation and is not in our national interest. So can the Minister confirm when and whether the Prime Minister plans to visit Northern Ireland next?
I am a Scot who believes strongly in the United Kingdom. I am not from Northern Ireland but, in the six years of closely following Northern Ireland matters in your Lordships’ House, I have come to understand the intensity and strength of feelings—and indeed anger—that have come to pervade Northern Ireland politics since 2016. An already complex history has become so very much more complex and complicated since Brexit. Cross-community consensus is the only way forward but, to quote my honourable friend Stephen Farry MP,
“power sharing is about power sharing happening; it is not about blocking it from happening.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/7/22; col. 1026.]
The Minister will be aware that the leader of the Alliance Party, Naomi Long, wrote to the Prime Minister on 25 October setting out some suggestions for reform. If the choice becomes between deadlock and direct rule, is this not the time for the Good Friday/Belfast agreement to evolve and develop to meet the current circumstances? As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said in a debate last week, any reforms to the Belfast agreement have to be “by agreement”; it cannot be
“changed unilaterally by one side or the other.”—[Official Report, 7/11/22; col. 535.]
Can the Minister indicate when he anticipates that Naomi Long will receive a response to her letter?
As a true believer in devolution, I say that it is hard not to reflect what a fully functioning Northern Ireland Executive would be in a position to achieve right now. A functioning Executive could have been working to resolve the crisis in the healthcare system and to deal with those issues surrounding legacy and moving on from the past—for example, through promoting a truly integrated education system. Perhaps most importantly, a functioning Executive could have been promoting Northern Ireland as a positive place to do business and to attract inward investment, with its unique access to both the United Kingdom and EU markets.
I am not in any way underplaying the scale of the problems facing Northern Ireland politics at this time, but surely the Government, as well as all the political parties in Northern Ireland, owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to try again, to change the tone and to start again with a fresh approach to negotiations, both in Brussels and in Belfast. Not to do so would, I believe, be unforgivable as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
My Lords, before I reply to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, I want to place on record my sadness at the news today of the death of the very eminent Northern Ireland historian Dr Éamon Phoenix, an outstanding public figure who will be greatly missed. We send our deepest sympathies to his family. Also, I am also very conscious that today marks the 41st anniversary of the brutal murder by the IRA of the former Member of Parliament for Belfast South, the Reverend Robert Bradford, and the caretaker at the Finaghy Community Centre, Kenneth Campbell. If I can pick up on some comments that have been made recently in Northern Ireland, there was always an alternative to terrorism.
I am incredibly grateful to the noble Lord who, as always, speaks with great wisdom on Northern Ireland affairs, as a very distinguished former Secretary of State; as, indeed, does the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. I welcome their comments on the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the approaching 25th anniversary. The noble Lord played a key role in securing that agreement back in 1998 as the chair of strand 1, I believe. The House should be in no doubt that this Government are absolutely determined to restore as quickly as possible a fully functioning devolved Administration, which will then allow the other institutions in strands 2 and 3 to function effectively.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness highlighted some of the problems that Northern Ireland currently faces and that we should be looking to a restored Executive to address as a matter of urgency. Only recently, the outgoing Northern Ireland Finance Minister pointed to a £660 million black hole in the Executive’s finances and this, of course, is having a very damaging impact on key public services, not least the National Health Service and education in Northern Ireland. So, I absolutely agree with noble Lords who are very keen and very desperate to get the institutions back up and running. I can assure noble Lords that that is the Government’s very clear commitment.
The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred to the need for a plan and a structure. I very much take on board what he says about that, given his experience. I too have been involved in a number of talks processes in Northern Ireland—some successful, some less so. It is always a difficult decision, how exactly we move these things forward, but I very much take his comments on board. One of the reasons, obviously, for delaying the election and postponing the election duty under which the Secretary of State is currently, is to give extra time and space, first for our discussions with the European Union over the protocol but also in the hope that the Northern Ireland parties can come together in some form, ready to restore an Executive.
Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness referred to prime ministerial involvement. I hope both will welcome the fact that the Prime Minister attended the British-Irish Council meeting in Blackpool last week—the first that a Prime Minister has attended, I believe, since 2007. I understand that at that meeting there was very constructive engagement between the Prime Minister and the outgoing Taoiseach, Micheál Martin. I look forward to those discussions and that engagement continuing. I cannot give the noble Baroness a precise time and date as to when the Prime Minister will next step foot in Northern Ireland itself, but I assure her that resolving these issues is very much a top priority.
I will add one word of caution—or a caveat, if you like—based on all our experiences. Yes, of course prime ministerial involvement is important, but it is not always the silver bullet. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, will recall Leeds Castle in 2004 and the Hillsborough declaration in 2003. I was involved in the Stormont House negotiations, when there was limited involvement from the then Prime Minister yet we had a successful agreement. Prime ministerial involvement is not always a guarantee of success, but I very much take on board the comments made.
I absolutely share the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, about not wanting to drift into direct rule. Both he and I have both been in the Northern Ireland Office during periods of direct rule, and it is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. I agree entirely that Northern Ireland is best governed when it governs itself under the devolved Administration.
The noble Baroness referred to the letter sent by Naomi Long to the Prime Minister. I will go back to officials and try to establish where we are with the draft response to that.
We had long debates about reform of the institutions on the then Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill. As I set out at the time, the Government are not opposed to the reform and evolution of the institutions, but the noble Baroness will be aware that since the mid-1990s we have proceeded on the basis of what is known as the sufficient consensus rule. This means that changes to arrangements in Northern Ireland should have the support of parties that represent the majorities of unionism and nationalism. We are always open to ideas about how the institutions will evolve, so long as any reform or evolution is consistent with the underlying principles of the Belfast agreement which, to our minds, should be sacrosanct.
I am very grateful to both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. I will take on board a number of their comments in discussions that I will have with the Secretary of State as we chart the way forward over the next few weeks and months with the sincere hope that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is upheld, maintained and protected, and the institutions restored as soon as that is possible.
Like my noble friend Lord Murphy and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, whose responses I commend, I welcome this Statement. However, I stress that there is only one way in which we will get the devolved Government up and running: to succeed with the negotiations over the protocol. I hope that the Government and these early signs of the Secretary of State’s stance over recent weeks—as well as the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Taoiseach—are good signs. Trust between London and Dublin has basically been at a level of zero for quite a while, and it is not much better with Brussels.
To be perfectly honest—I hope the Minister will not take this amiss—we negotiated the Good Friday agreement and the St Andrews agreement even though they were “It will never happen” agreements; my noble friend Lord Murphy was directly involved in the former, and myself in the latter. By comparison, the negotiations with the European Union are relatively straightforward. There need to be much more flexibility and creativity on the part of London and less dogmatism over such matters as the European Court of Justice—the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, suggested a solution to that which I commend to the Government—as well as over the question of the democratic deficit, and the Northern Ireland parties need to have consultative rights with Brussels over issues affecting them due to the protocol. Norway has those although it is outside the European Union; like Northern Ireland, it is in the single market. Northern Ireland should have those consultative rights. I therefore urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to impress upon the Prime Minister that there needs to be more flexibility on the part of the British Government, then we can sort the protocol, get Stormont up and running again and the devolved Government of Northern Ireland doing their job.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, another distinguished former Secretary of State, for his comments. Of course, I absolutely agree that the single biggest obstacle to the restoration of devolved government is the current operation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which is why the Government are absolutely determined to keep what is working within the protocol but to remedy the clear defects that are apparent. We have had very lengthy debates about this in Committee on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill over the past few weeks. The Government’s clear preference is that we have a proper negotiated outcome and an agreement with the EU but, of course, if that is not possible, we will have to take action as set out in the Bill itself.
The noble Lord referred to the need for the Government to show a greater degree of flexibility. I wish he had added something about the need for the European Union also to adopt a less theological and less dogmatic approach to certain matters. However, I agree with his aspiration that we manage to come to an agreement with the EU to resolve these issues so that Stormont can be back and up and running again as quickly as possible.
My Lords, I too wish to be associated with the remarks the Minister made regarding the untimely death of Dr Phoenix. If the current negotiations taking place with the European Union on the Northern Ireland protocol fail to deliver any major changes, I think it is unlikely that the Assembly will resume. Can the Minister therefore confirm what he has just said: that the Government will therefore act on the protocol Bill which has been agreed by the other place?
I am grateful to the noble Lord speaking for the DUP. As he is well aware, the Government are committed to making changes to the protocol through discussions with the European Union that are currently taking place. We all hope that they will be successful, but in the event that that is not the case or is not possible, we remain committed to the provisions of the Bill.
My Lords, I would like to be associated with the Minister’s comments about Dr Éamon Phoenix, a lecturer in Irish history at Stranmillis, one of the colleges of Queen’s University Belfast, who had a particular emphasis on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Dr Phoenix was a very eminent historian, giving talks on a regular basis and writing documents about historical analysis, with particular reference to the current situation with the Good Friday agreement, particularly over the last 25 years.
The Government were correct to pause the elections. As my noble friend Lord Murphy said, it would simply have increased the level of polarisation in Northern Ireland. Rather gently, I say to the DUP that no political ideology, no matter how dearly held, should prevent the restoration of the political institutions. Over the last weekend, we have seen a health service in crisis. The Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and the Antrim Area Hospital have been unable to deal with accidents and emergencies that have arrived at their front doors.
As a follow-on from the Statement, and from the Elections Act 2022, what negotiations will take place with the political parties regarding the statutory designation of the First Ministers as joint First Ministers to reflect their equality of power and equality of say in terms of partnership and co-operation, and will such a provision be made in the forthcoming legislation on foot of this Statement?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness and echo the comments about Dr Phoenix. I was present at a talk on the road to partition that he gave to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly when I was briefly a member last year. It was an outstanding lecture and, of course, he played a great role in some of the work around the decade of centenaries in Northern Ireland from 2012 onwards.
The noble Baroness referred to opposition to the protocol. The Government have been very clear throughout that we do not regard opposition to the protocol as a justification for not being part of an Executive, just as, I hasten to add, we did not regard the Sinn Féin position between 2017 and 2020 as remotely justified. We have been pretty consistent on that.
The noble Baroness rightly referred to the problems in the NHS. I spoke of the £660 million black hole in the Executive’s finances and the impact it is having. It is why we will have to bring forward budget allocations and a budget Bill in Westminster. It is very regrettable. These are matters that should be dealt with in the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, we must provide some certainty and the ability to protect key public services at this time.
On the noble Baroness’s point about First Ministers and Deputy First Ministers, of course there will be ongoing engagement between Ministers and Northern Ireland political parties. At the moment, our first priority is to get the institutions back up and running. However, as I said in responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, we are not against reforms and evolution of the institutions, so long as we proceed on the basis of agreement and sufficient consensus.
My Lords, I welcome the Statement and the news that action will be taken to extend the legislative formation of the Assembly, and to enable time and space for the talks to be taken forward. Probably everyone in this House hopes that those talks succeed.
I hope the House will not mind if I make two observations. I have been to Northern Ireland and seen the Assembly in action on many occasions over years when it was in operation. I organised the annual “Science & Stormont” event, on which all the major parties in Northern Ireland co-operated to co-sponsor. I have seen the capacity of the Northern Ireland Assembly to work together for the good of the people of Northern Ireland.
I very much hope, as referred to later in the Statement, that progress can be made despite all the difficulties. I am mindful of the fact that it was possible for the Northern Ireland Assembly to meet when Her late Majesty the Queen died. There was a Speaker and tributes were paid from all sides of the Assembly. I would have thought—I hope the Minister agrees—that if it is possible to do that on the death of the Monarch, it is possible to restore the Assembly to the working order we all hope for in the future.
I am grateful to the noble Viscount for his comments and his long-standing involvement and commitment. He makes some pertinent points about the Assembly and the need to get it back up and running. As I say, the Government’s clear position is that the current situation is not justified and it would be far better for all if the Assembly was functioning in the way intended. He refers to people coming together; in the context of approaching the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, this serves as a useful reminder of Northern Ireland’s huge potential, notwithstanding the current challenges we all face, to thrive and prosper when people work together on all sides.
My Lords, it is well known that the Secretary of State, beating his chest and saying, at one minute past midnight, that an election would be called, was endeavouring to blackmail the DUP into the Executive. It did not work. Make no mistake: the DUP is not afraid to go back to the electorate after honouring what was pledged in the previous election. It is interesting that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and the Alliance Party are suggesting a reform of the institutions because of the present stalemate. The Alliance Party did not say the same when Sinn Féin put the Assembly down for three years. Let us therefore have a little balance.
Can the Minister confirm whether, when the Secretary of State was discussing the internal affairs of Northern Ireland—the date of an election to the Assembly in Northern Ireland—he consulted the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic? This would be in contravention of strand 1 of the Belfast agreement.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. He will not be surprised to hear that I would not characterise my right honourable friend the Secretary of State’s approach to this as attempting to blackmail any party in Northern Ireland. He was rightly setting out the legal position in which he found himself, at one minute past midnight on 28 October. As the noble Lord is aware, having consulted political opinion widely in Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State took the view that an election would not be the right course at this time—hence the extension and the legislation.
As far as the noble Lord’s other point is concerned, of course the Secretary of State has numerous discussions, but the important point is that strand 1 issues are—and remain—for the United Kingdom Government and the Northern Ireland parties. That is clear. We are always committed to the three-strand approach to Northern Ireland, including for the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, which are matters for the UK Government in discussion with Northern Ireland parties.
May I return to the protocol, please? On how many occasions have there been negotiations and discussions specific to the issues raised in the protocol between the UK Government and the European Union, first, at Secretary of State level and, secondly, at any ministerial level? When will the next such meetings take place at each of these levels?
Forgive me if I misheard the noble and learned Lord. Is he referring to discussions between the UK Government and the European Union?
Yes, on protocol issues.
I cannot give the noble and learned Lord a precise date for the next meeting, but there are ongoing discussions, as he well knows. The Foreign Secretary and Maroš Šefčovič have now spoken and met on a number of occasions. I can only reiterate what I said in response to earlier questions: we are determined to do whatever we can to secure a negotiated agreement that will remedy the defects in the protocol, preserve what works and facilitate a situation in which all parties can go back into a restored Executive for the good of the people of Northern Ireland.
On how many occasions have meetings taken place, specific to the protocol, at Secretary of State level and ministerial level, with EU equivalents? There can have been only so many—one, two, 10, 15. If the Minister does not know the answer, I am perfectly happy to receive a letter.
If the noble and learned Lord will forgive me, I will endeavour to write to him.
My Lords, in responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, the Minister said that the Government were not against reforms to the process. I believe that he was referring to reforms of institutions, in particular the way in which the Executive are constituted. Will he go further in saying that, to restore full faith in the process for the people of Northern Ireland, reforms are indeed necessary? Further to that, does he agree that it is crucial that people have a full understanding and involvement in the democratic process at all levels; and so, should there end up being a Stormont election next year, it would be absolutely essential that it were not combined with local government elections, as that would further complicate and involve matters that should be kept separate?
At the moment, the priority has to be to try to re-establish the institutions. Of course, people will bring forward ideas about potential reforms to the institutions, and we are not against that. They have evolved over the years. Reference has been made to the election of First and Deputy First Ministers. The system that we now have in place following the agreement that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, negotiated at St Andrews is different from the one in the original Belfast agreement. There have been subsequent changes around a number of issues such as facilitating official opposition. I do not particularly want to get drawn into specifics on this. The priority has to be to get the institutions back up and running. Of course, next year is the 25th anniversary of the agreement. Assuming that the institutions are back up and running, which I hope they will be, that may well be a time when we need to reflect on whether there are things that can be done to make the institutions work better. Regarding the noble Baroness’s last point, I will not speculate on the dates of elections.