That the Bill be now read a second time.
My Lords, I was honoured and humbled to attend a service in Ballykelly yesterday to mark the 40th anniversary tomorrow of the heinous and depraved Droppin Well bomb, which killed 11 soldiers and six civilians in 1982. In working as a Government to build a stronger, shared future for Northern Ireland, we should never forget that all terrorism, then as now, was totally unjustified and unjustifiable. There was always an alternative to murder.
I reiterate this Government’s unyielding support for the historic 1998 Belfast agreement, to the constitutional principles it enshrines, to the institutions that it establishes and to the rights that it guarantees for all in Northern Ireland. I reiterate what I have said on previous occasions: the agreement is the bedrock of all the progress that has been achieved in Northern Ireland in recent decades and protecting the agreement will remain at the heart of everything that we do. This Government will not take risks with the hard-gained relative peace and stability that the people of Northern Ireland enjoy today.
Central to that agreement is, of course, a fully functioning Executive and Assembly, from which the other institutions in strands 2 and 3 of the agreement flow—an Assembly and Executive where locally elected representatives can address issues that matter most to those who elect them. This has not, however, been the case since February this year and in the period following the Assembly election that took place on 5 May. As I set out in my Statement in this House three weeks ago, it is a matter of profound regret that the Northern Ireland Executive had not been restored by 28 October, the deadline after which the Secretary of State would come under a legal obligation to set a date for a further election.
I think it is clear to most, however, that a further election in the immediate term would be unlikely to produce a significantly different result or resolve the situation that we currently face. The time has therefore come for the Government, and indeed noble Lords in this House, to take action in response to what can best be described as the governance gap that has emerged in Northern Ireland. That is what the Government’s Bill seeks to do.
Separately, I set out in a Written Statement on 24 November how the Government intend to respond to the extremely difficult budgetary issues that have arisen in Northern Ireland. The Government will bring forward a separate budget Bill where more detail will be provided on this; no doubt noble Lords will want to consider that carefully. This Bill, though, is about creating the conditions whereby some key decisions in Northern Ireland can continue to be taken, including on the implementation of that forthcoming budget.
I am sure noble Lords will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to speak at great length in this Second Reading; I know that many noble Lords will want to come in during the limited time available to us today. Before I briefly summarise the overall intention of this legislation, I offer my thanks to the House for considering this Bill at the pace required. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, for the very constructive approach of the Constitution Committee to this legislation. I assure her and other noble Lords that the Government do not take these steps lightly, and I am glad that there seems to be broad consensus on the need to consider this quickly.
I also welcome a very old friend of mine, the noble Lord, Lord Weir of Ballyholme, to his place in this House today. The part of Northern Ireland that forms part of his title I know extremely well, not least because I have close friends who live about five doors from the Esplanade bar in his former constituency, which he will know very well. He will be making his maiden speech today and, if he takes his cue from his noble friends in the DUP, as I am sure he will, he will no doubt bring to proceedings unparalleled expertise, as a former Northern Ireland Executive Minister, and a formidable eye for detail. I wish him well. The noble Lord will, I am sure, help to strengthen further the reputation of this House as the Chamber of Parliament that diligently scrutinises legislation and holds the Government of the day to account, while at the same time bringing together Peers who represent all the regions and nations of our United Kingdom.
Broadly, the Bill seeks to do three main things. First, it retrospectively extends the period for Executive formation for a further six weeks until 8 December, with a power to extend by a further six weeks after that until 19 January. That means, subject to the agreement of this House, that if an Executive is not formed within those timeframes, the duty placed on the Secretary of State to call an election will commence this week, on 9 December, or, if the second six-week extension is activated, on 20 January 2023.
Secondly, the Bill clarifies the decisions that civil servants in Northern Ireland government departments can take in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, meaning that decisions in crucial areas can continue to be taken.
Thirdly, the Bill provides for powers that allow the Government to take action to amend the pay of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly when they are unable to conduct the full range of the functions expected of them.
The Bill also provides for a number of other measures; namely, making provision for certain public appointments to be made in the absence of an Executive and conferring on the Secretary of State a power to set regional rates in Northern Ireland for the financial year ending 31 March 2024.
No doubt we will speak to each of these provisions in greater depth as proceedings continue but, taken together, these measures will help to plug the governance gap that has emerged. However, I cannot stress enough that the Bill is not intended to be a long-term solution to the issues that Northern Ireland is facing.
I will briefly go through the Bill’s clauses. Clause 1 makes provision for an extension of the period for filling ministerial offices, as set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and amended by the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022. It retrospectively introduces a further six-week period during which an Executive can be formed, to 8 December. Clause 2 provides for a further power to extend the Executive formation period by a further six weeks.
On decision-making, Clauses 3 to 5 clarify decisions that Northern Ireland civil servants can take in the continued absence of an Executive. The Government have broadly mirrored the approach that the previous but one Administration took in 2018 with regard to these powers, largely replicating the relevant provisions in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018.
Northern Ireland civil servants will therefore be provided with the necessary certainty to take a limited set of decisions where it is in the public interest to do so. To assist them, the Secretary of State published draft guidance on 29 November on taking decisions in the public interest and the principles to be taken into account in deciding whether or not to do so—again, mirroring the previous approach. I think I am right in saying that guidance has gone to Members of the Legislative Assembly, who have until 8 December to make representations. However, as I have said previously, we recognise that this is not a long-term solution and civil servants cannot be left to take decisions indefinitely. That is why these provisions will last for six months or until an Executive is formed, whichever is sooner.
On public appointments, Clauses 6 to 9 make provision for certain public appointments that would normally have to be made by Executive Ministers or require their approval to be made. Again, this mirrors previous legislation and is another sensible step to take to ensure that key appointments that are necessary to maintain governance and public confidence in the institutions in Northern Ireland can still be made.
Clause 10 will allow the Secretary of State to take action when it comes to the pay of Members of the Assembly. These clauses will therefore allow the Secretary of State to amend MLAs’ pay in this and any future period of inactivity, drawing on Sections 47 and 48 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We anticipate that any determination made once these provisions come into force will take into account the independent analysis produced in the previous political impasse between 2017 and 2020.
The Secretary of State will retain the power to set MLAs’ pay in future instances where the Assembly is unable to elect a speaker and deputies following an election. The power would then go back to the current arrangement when these roles are filled and the Assembly is able to conduct business.
Clause 11 confers on the Secretary of State a power to set the regional domestic and non-domestic rate in Northern Ireland for the financial year ending 31 March 2024 by regulations. These rates must be set for every financial year. Clauses 12 to 15 are minor and consequential.
No Government would want to be in the position in which we find ourselves today. It is clearly not a satisfactory state of affairs. In response, although this Bill will provide some short-term cover, so to speak, it is clearly not a long-term solution. Such a solution remains primarily for a newly reconstituted Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, working in partnership with the United Kingdom Government, to tackle. I assure noble Lords in this House that we will continue to work tirelessly during the timeframe set out in the Bill to create the conditions that will enable those institutions to be re-established at the earliest possible opportunity.
During my Statement to the House on 14 November, I reflected upon the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement and made the point that we should be marking the progress that Northern Ireland has made since that historic agreement. I sincerely hope that this will be the case. Meanwhile, we have little option but to pass this necessary but regrettable legislation. On that note, I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his presentation on the Bill. I recognise and acknowledge that it is necessary but, like him, I feel that the only solution is the restoration of all the political institutions of the Good Friday agreement. For that to happen, there is a need for interparty talks, involving both Governments, to take place fairly expeditiously to address all the outstanding issues in respect of these matters and those of the New Decade, New Approach, agreement that was reached between the two Governments back in January 2020, and which witnessed the establishment of the political institutions.
Before I progress to the content of the legislation and any political analysis, I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Weir of Ballyholme, to his place. He, like me and other noble Lords across the Chamber, served in the Northern Ireland Assembly; some of us served as Ministers on a range of issues in the Northern Ireland Executive. Across that chamber, I took issue with him on several occasions. Notwithstanding that, and although our political origins and politics on the constitutional issues may be different, I look forward to working with him on a range of matters. I also look forward to hearing his maiden speech today.
The purpose of the Bill, as the Minister has indicated, is to extend the deadline for forming a Northern Ireland Executive on 8 December for another six weeks, until 19 January. However, I would hope that the institutions of the Good Friday agreement will be re-established. I have some reservations about the Bill and, in considering this legislation, an immediate question arises: how and why have we got to this point in our political deliberations in Northern Ireland?
To me, this legislation represents not only a further manifestation, sadly, of political failure but is also the Secretary of State putting a sticking plaster on a running sore of ongoing political paralysis in Northern Ireland. It is kicking that proverbial can down the road until the institutions are established and then there is a further fall of them. There is a need to look at issues that we discussed in debating the previous legislation earlier this year, such as the designation of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister as joint First Ministers, and an end to these never-ending vetoes.
I honestly think that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland does not understand the politics or politicians in Northern Ireland. He and his colleagues seem to think that, by threatening an election, reducing Assembly Members’ salaries or preventing the payment of the energy money, somehow politicians will be brought to heel. An examination of the history and politics in Northern Ireland would show that this will not happen.
We have seen our local population in Northern Ireland be subject to the ransom politics of the DUP and the gamesmanship of the Secretary of State and the Government. None of these actions helps or builds reconciliation, which is urgently required, or builds good, harmonious living conditions for the people of Northern Ireland, or assists with the cost of living or the cost of doing business crises, or attempts to reform our health service to make it more accessible to the general public, who are lingering in pain trying to get on to waiting lists for assessment, diagnosis, surgery and treatment.
That brings us to the next question: what is the purpose of politics? It is about representation and delivering the needs of people and communities. This is currently hampered in Northern Ireland. Either through their own actions or the actions of others, elected MLAs are being hampered in doing their jobs due to the lack of political institutions as per the Good Friday agreement model. Interparty dialogue should have happened after the elections in May, rather than the political gamesmanship of the DUP and the British Government.
Although this is a stopgap mechanism, I ask the Minister where such talks have been since the Assembly elections of May 2022. What attempts are there to get the parties around the table to re-establish the institutions? What plans do the Government have to do just that? What is the plan to deal with the outstanding issues which have not yet been implemented from the New Decade, New Approach agreement of January 2020? All we have is the refrain that the protocol is preventing restoration—but the Assembly is not responsible for such negotiations. As we all know, protocol negotiations are the responsibility of the UK and EU negotiating teams. I gently say to the DUP, as I did on the night of the Statement, that no political ideology should be used to prevent the restoration of those political institutions when people’s lives are being sacrificed.
One aspect of the legislation disturbs me. Clauses 3 to 5 will ensure that Northern Ireland’s senior civil servants can exercise departmental functions in the absence of Ministers if they are satisfied that it is in the public interest. Having those powers for six months or until a new Executive is formed, however temporary, places them in an impossible position. Political decisions are required on budgetary allocations and budgetary reductions to departments to ensure that public services can continue to function. Those are decisions to be exercised by politicians and not by civil servants.
Over the past week or two we have heard from former senior civil servants. The former head of the Civil Service, Sir Malcolm McKibbin, stated on the “Red Lines” podcast that the Government are making the task of civil servants more complicated. He further stated that the guidance published by the Government on how civil servants take decisions would exacerbate the pressures they face. He stated that
“the challenge now is greater because primarily before it was permanent secretaries sorting out how to allocate additional resources—this time it’s about reducing services and there will be losers”.
He added that the lack of scrutiny around decisions that are expected to be taken for as long as the stalemate continues at Stormont is not a good thing.
Without a sitting Assembly, Assembly Members cannot sit on statutory committees to question and scrutinise decision-making by relevant departments. Sir Malcolm McKibbin’s successor, Sir David Sterling, said that the Civil Service was being put in an “impossible position”, while Andrew McCormick, a former Permanent Secretary, called this an “affront to democracy”. The current head of the Civil Service, Jayne Brady, has said that that they are civil servants and the people of Northern Ireland face challenging times.
We can all recall instances between 2017 and 2020 when Sinn Féin brought down the political institutions. At that stage, civil servants were empowered to make decisions and, as a result, there was some litigation involving decisions to be made in respect of an incinerator. Unfortunately for civil servants, if they make unpopular decisions on budgetary allocations and reductions, impacting the lives of people and the community, my fear is that there could be scope for litigation again.
What needs to happen is a restoration of the political institutions to which people are elected; a successful outcome to the negotiations on the protocol; the establishment of interparty talks looking at the appointment of joint Ministers to underscore equality, which would obviously mean legislative change; and an end to vetoes, which have prevented the political institutions from working properly. We need to put inclusion, reconciliation and equality—the central principles of the GFA—back in government, with interparty talks with both Governments, looking at the outstanding issues of New Decade, New Approach and putting a plan in place for the implementation of the outstanding issues.
When I was elected to the Assembly in November 2003, it was not sitting and the institutions were not working. My noble friend Lord Murphy was then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He docked our pay and there were the Leeds Castle talks, and, although we may not have liked their outcomes, interparty talks nevertheless took place because of the actions of a Labour Secretary of State.
In 2006, we were still in that limbo situation, and the then Secretary of State, Peter Hain, now my noble friend Lord Hain, of Neath, held talks that led to the restoration of the institutions in 2007. Although we may not all have agreed with the outcomes in that instance, my point is that interparty talks took place and efforts were made by the UK and Irish Governments to ensure that, with a view to resolving the outstanding difficulties and getting the institutions up and running.
So I say to the Minister and the UK Government: please convene interparty talks to get these issues resolved as quickly as possible. There obviously needs to be joint working with the Irish Government in respect of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, and I am pleased that efforts are being made in that regard. Although I support this temporary stopgap legislation, I believe that those political talks are urgently required.
My Lords, I support the Bill and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Weir. This is the first time I have had the pleasure of welcoming a former student of mine to this House, and I hope it is not the last. He will bring a lot of skill and experience as a Minister and politician in Northern Ireland, which will be very useful to this House.
I particularly welcome that we have not fallen, as we have on previous occasions, into the trap of having too passive a model of direct rule for this—I hope short—period of time. It is pure common sense to allow senior officials to make certain discretionary decisions; we have had enormous difficulties in the past when we have not done that. It is difficult, and I fully accept the point made earlier that, as time goes on and with tough economic decisions to be made, it will become even more difficult. I fully accept that senior civil servants do not like it, but, on the whole, it is the best way forward for this period of time, which we hope to make as short as possible. It is an entirely appropriate exercise of UK sovereignty and, in essence, a practical measure. However, this Bill is meant to be a very temporary expedient, and the longer the directive lasts, the more difficult the position of our civil servants will become.
The question remains: how realistic is the putative return to devolution? I will address my remarks in the spirit of the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, both of whom placed the Good Friday agreement at the centre of their reflections. My remarks are intended to draw attention to some of the things that might facilitate a rapid return to devolution. It is clear that interesting negotiations are taking place—very interesting, if you read some of the Dublin reports on the interplay between the UK Government and the EU—and I hope there will be continuing good progress on that front. Last week, our officials gave a public demonstration, to which journalists and other interested parties were invited, of the new technology Britain could offer. The days are gone when the EU could dismissively wave its hand and talk about unicorn technology and magical solutions. This is now quite detailed and impressive, and it ought to make the difficulties in the strand 3 area much easier to overcome.
This is very important, because strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement insists on a harmonious and modern model of relations between Great Britain and Ireland, including Northern Ireland. Currently, however, the model is anything but harmonious, given the number of interventions, delays, checks and so on. We may have done the technological work which allows us a way out of that. The EU’s response is going to be very significant, because to return to devolution we will need to have the Good Friday agreement clearly up and running—and that includes the critical area of strand 3. However, it is not just strand 3 that is important; so is strand 2, on north/south relations. Here, I want again to say something positive and helpful, but the truth is that the working model of strand 2 we have had for many years—north/south relations mandated by the Northern Ireland Assembly—has basically crashed and collapsed and is in total disarray.
But are we therefore without hope? I draw attention to two things: first, what the EU itself says in the protocol section of the withdrawal agreement, parts 1 and 2 of Article 11, where it says that all the parts of strand 2 should be working—it really wants that. At the moment, however, it is as dead as a dodo; none of its parts is working. It then says that it will be flexible to make sure that this excellent arrangement for north/south co-operation continues. This is amazingly non-controversial to anybody who the remembers the Northern Irish politics of the 1990s: unionist acceptance of north/south co-operation on the basis of consent and an assembly mandate is one of the great achievements of the Good Friday agreement, and we must not throw it away. Instead, we must build on it to get out of the dreadful mess we are in. The EU has said that it wants it working at full tilt, and that it will be flexible to help with difficulties.
Secondly, I draw attention to a letter from the right honourable Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the Irish Times on 8 July 2019, in which he picks up on that precise point. He is following on from important analysis by fair-minded and well-known commentators on north/south relations in the Irish Times: Newton Emerson, who wrote on 27 June, and Andy Pollak, who wrote on 3 July. Donaldson says that he, too, believes that the revival of north/south institutions would be helpful in facing and dealing with the problems currently posed by the protocol. As we have agreed institutions for food safety and animal health, which are clearly issues at stake in the whole mess we are now in, it has always been a mystery to me why they are not used or even expanded in certain areas. The institutions have grown up since the Good Friday agreement, and the two issues I mentioned are actually in the text of the Good Friday agreement, so why are these institutions not strengthened as a means of finding a way through this mess and to reassure the EU, which has legitimate concerns about animal health and protection of the single market?
In conclusion, I would like to point out that there is an excise border in the island of Ireland. It was there long before the protocol and it will be there long after the protocol. That excise border means that there is a substantial amount of smuggling already, and there is a strong such tradition. It is very much in our minds in recent days because we have just seen a gangland murder in Newry that seemed to have that dimension, and there is a rather dramatic case going through the courts in Dublin at the moment that also bears on some of these issues.
I remind the House that, in the wake of 9/11, both the United Kingdom and Ireland were on the Security Council, as indeed they are today. Then, we agreed and passed Resolution 1373, which says that borders are places of criminality and we need to keep an eye on them. They are places where money gets lost and where terrorism can sometimes place itself quite easily. It makes it quite clear that border areas are areas of skulduggery. I cannot understand why, therefore, at this moment—and we have just seen dramatic evidence with the latest murder that the border is once again an area of skulduggery—we do not have an enhanced UK-Ireland agreement to work together on these matters. This should be done for its own sake, but it would also perform the function of dealing with some of the concerns that the EU inevitably has about smuggling—which is a legitimate concern about smuggling and penetration of the single market.
I offer those ideas in the hope that they may be of some use in the current debate about how we bring devolution back, because the timescales announced in this Bill are extremely tight, given the interference, for example, of the Christmas holidays in the middle of them. It remains the case that there is now a possibility—I put it no higher than that—of a new understanding with the EU. The atmosphere is certainly much better; the fears expressed in this House at the beginning of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill on that score turned out not to be correct. There is now a possibility of some kind of positive movement, but it will be done—this is where I agree with the two previous speakers—only by intense fidelity to the underlying principles of the Good Friday agreement, strand 3 and strand 2, and by trying not just to preserve them but actually to breathe new life into them and, if necessary, expand them.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s letter, in that sense, is very close to what the EU says in Article 11.2 in the section entitled “Protocol to the Bill”; the EU says it is its position. So I think this is something we ought to be exploring at this point, because it is going to be a struggle to meet the timetable in this Bill.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure and an honour to make my maiden speech in this Chamber. It is a particular pleasure to follow my former lecturer, the noble Lord, Lord Bew: I will leave it to the discernment of the House at the end of my remarks to determine whether he was a good enough lecturer—or perhaps, more pertinently, whether I was a good enough student. Members will have to decide that for themselves.
I also place on record my thanks to the staff of this House for the great help they have been to me, both before and after my introduction to the House. I thank fellow Peers as well for the warm welcome I have received and for the kind remarks of those preceding me in this debate—although I say to the noble Lord, Lord Caine, that his allusion to my familiarity with the bars of Ballyholme might not have necessarily done me any favours with my party colleagues.
I hope I can bring a little bit of familiarity to the issues of the governance of Northern Ireland, to Executive functions and particularly to the Assembly. I believe that I am one of only five people to have contested all seven elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly since its inception in 1998. During that period, I have been able to both participate in and view the governance of Northern Ireland from a range of perspectives: through involvement in the Local Government Association and the Northern Ireland Policing Board; in my capacity as a Back-Bench Member of the Assembly serving on a number of committees; as a committee chair, holding government Ministers to account; as Chief Whip of the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly; and, finally, through serving two terms as Education Minister.
From that experience, I have drawn the conclusion that devolution is clearly the best vehicle for and the best method of governing Northern Ireland. However, to be successful, devolution requires both stability and, in particular, buy-in from across the community. It is a fragile flower that needs protecting.
I also have the great honour, as a native of the newly created city of Bangor, to be the second son of that great city to have served in this House in recent years. I have the honour of sharing that distinction with the late Lord Trimble. Although Lord Trimble was 24 years older than me and, occasionally, we did not always see eye to eye, we have a remarkably similar background. Lord Trimble was educated first at Ballyholme primary school, as was I; he went on to Bangor grammar school, as did I; he then studied law at Queen’s University, as did I; he was then called to the Bar of Northern Ireland, as was I; and he went on to become a distinguished academic lawyer—and that is perhaps where our paths diverged. While, for one term, I did teach constitutional and administrative law, it would be pretentious of me to lay claim to any of the abilities of Lord Trimble in that connection.
There is always a danger in attributing views to those who have predeceased us, but I think that I can say with a level of confidence that Lord Trimble would share with me a similar approach to the legislation that is before us—which is to see it as a somewhat reluctant necessity caused by the failure to deal with the problems created by the Northern Ireland protocol, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, indicated, has not only created the issues we see today around the internal governance of Northern Ireland but has had a profound effect on both strand 2 and strand 3 of the agreement. There will be further opportunities to delve into the detail of the Northern Ireland protocol, which I will not explore today, but we should be in no doubt that not only is the Northern Ireland protocol the root cause of this legislation, but—although it is not directly mentioned in the legislation—it remains the elephant in the room when we are discussing it.
I turn briefly to some of the detail contained within the Bill itself. As the noble Lord, Lord Caine, indicated, it has a number of component parts. First, it effectively legitimises the decision of the Government to postpone an imminent Assembly election. On balance, that is a sensible approach. It would be wrong if an election was postponed simply because someone did not like the potential outcome; that is not a legitimate reason. Nor indeed should an election be used as some sort of leverage or threat over any party or individual group. Experience in Northern Ireland shows that not only would that not produce the results that were intended but it would be counterproductive.
It is the case, however, that holding an election at the moment would, at best, act as both a delay to and a distraction from the action that is necessary to resolve the issues within Northern Ireland. It would also, I believe, not tell us anything different from what we already know. It is clear that nationalist parties and the Alliance Party are, broadly speaking, able to live with the Northern Ireland protocol, albeit that they are no longer insisting on its full implementation, while unionist elected representatives, of whatever shade of opinion and whatever party they belong to, are implacably opposed to the protocol. Any election would simply reinforce that and highlight it again from the electorate of Northern Ireland.
The second part, which to be fair, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, highlighted, is probably the most difficult, is the powers conferred on senior civil servants in Northern Ireland. They form a very august body of men and women—I know most of them personally—but there is no doubt that this places them in a very difficult position regarding decision-making. It can be only a temporary measure.
However, it is difficult, in the current circumstances, to find a better alternative to what is being proposed. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, referred to the Buick decision, which challenged decisions made by senior civil servants during the previous suspension of devolution. I look forward to the Minister’s response on this, but I believe and trust that the legislation has been framed in such a way to try to ensure that a Buick-type situation does not occur again.
The third element is the power, in limited circumstances, to make appointments. Again, that is necessary. I trust it will not be abused by the Government and that it will be used only where it is necessary.
The fourth issue, which has probably excited the greatest media interest, is MLA pay. When I served as an MLA for 24 years, I took it as a point of principle never to offer an opinion or try to lobby on what my level of pay should be. It is right that there is a reduction in pay where MLAs are not in a position to fulfil their full role. I do not think that anyone could disagree with that proposition. It is right that it is not extended to the salaries of those working for MLAs, who continue to do their day-to-day work in constituency offices. It would be wrong to punish them for the sins of the MLAs. I simply say, again echoing the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, that it would be a misconception to believe that any level of reduction in or promise of restoration of pay will have any great impact in changing the principled position that my party and others have on this issue.
Finally, there is a power in the legislation to set a regional rate. Allied to that are proposals that will be brought forward on the budget. Again, this seems sensible, notwithstanding that, whenever a budget is produced for next year, many of us might well have disagreements over its configuration.
We have reached this position because there have been missed opportunities with the Northern Ireland protocol. There has at times been inflexibility from the EU and promises have been unfulfilled. But I end in a spirit of hope and optimism. If this legislation can act as a device to put in place on a temporary basis governance arrangements that take these issues away, in the short term, from the political sphere, if it effectively clears away the rubble of problems of governance and allows a forensic and focused examination of the problems that face Northern Ireland through the Northern Ireland protocol, and if those opportunities are grasped to change and fix those problems, then this will be very worthy legislation. It is on the basis of the opportunity that needs to be taken that I stand to support this legislation. Thank you.
My Lords, it gives me enormous pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Weir of Ballyholme. I congratulate him on his maiden speech. We are fortunate that he delivered his first speech in your Lordships’ House on the subject of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, given his service, as we have heard, over 24 years as a long-standing Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland.
My noble friend and I have a number of things in common. He is also a barrister, having been called to the Bar of Northern Ireland in 1992, some years after me, I have to say—many years after me, in fact. He was a member of the Northern Ireland Forum, along with me, which was elected in 1996 and which led to the talks and the Belfast agreement. Like me, he was elected to the first Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998. The major difference was that, at that time, he was a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. However, in 2002 he made the wise, sensible and courageous decision to join the ranks of the Democratic Unionist Party. He has played an important role in our party from that moment.
Indeed, my noble friend led the way in many respects by being the first Ulster Unionist Assembly Member to make that seminal change. He would be followed into the DUP from the Ulster Unionists two years later by another distinguished Member of your Lordships’ House, the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, and the current leader of our party in the other place, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. I well remember my noble friend coming to see me in our offices in the City Hall at around the start of 2002 to discuss that switch, and it gives me great pleasure to sit beside him and to follow him in speaking today in your Lordships’ House. In the 20 years since that moment, he has served first as a Member of the Assembly for North Down up until 2017 and then latterly as a Member for Strangford. He was also a member of North Down Borough Council from 2005 to 2015 and, as he mentioned, he has served twice as Minister of Education.
Shortly after taking office in 2020, he, like other Ministers in the devolved Government, faced the enormous challenges of the Covid pandemic. It is right to put on record that he strove valiantly during that time to put the interests of children first, and to endeavour to keep our schools open, so far as possible, for the education of our children, something which most people now acknowledge and accept should have been of an even greater priority across the United Kingdom during the pandemic. During his time in office, he also set up an expert panel to produce a report, A Fair Start, on educational underachievement among the most disadvantaged in Northern Ireland. It has produced a very far-reaching and long-sighted plan identifying key actions to support children from birth and throughout their early years, up to and including the time they start school. This is one of the most important pieces of work in recent years commissioned by the Department of Education. It will make a real difference—as I know, speaking from experience of my constituency of Belfast North, which I had the honour to represent—if properly implemented and resourced.
We are blessed to have my noble friend in our presence, in terms of his future membership of this House. He has been a person of honour, integrity and ability in his political life, in the Assembly and, as increasingly rare attributes in politics, he has exemplified loyalty, dedication to his principles and service to his constituents and party. I, for one, am truly delighted to see him in your Lordships’ House. I think he will make, as we have seen today, a considerable contribution to your Lordships’ deliberations in the years to come.
I turn to the Bill before your Lordships. Like others, I welcome, reluctantly, its contents: it is necessary but unfortunate. Although I know we have been through a number of iterations of government in recent months, it is clearly the case that had Governments under different Prime Ministers moved with greater alacrity to deal with the protocol issue, we would not be in the position we are in today.
I well remember that after the European Union decided to invoke Article 16 in order to put a vaccines border on the island of Ireland, to prevent vaccines coming to Northern Ireland at the start of the Covid pandemic, the then Prime Minister undertook that there would be action to deal with the protocol by March. We were then told that there would be action by the beginning of the summer, and instead we got a Command Paper in 2021 that set out the Government’s position. It was a welcome paper, but clearly only a set of proposals. We were then told that there would be a short, intensive period of negotiations starting in early September 2021, which would last three or four weeks and then, if the talks were successful, great; if not, action would be taken. Again, that was extended to Christmas, we had the resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and then we were into another period of delay.
During this time, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party warned that time was running out, because we could not have a situation where unionist Members of the legislative Assembly—all of whom, regardless of whether they are members of the DUP or other parties, are opposed to the protocol; they object to it and they voted against it—were required to implement that protocol. Despite the warnings and the passage of time, unfortunately nothing was done. That has led to the position that we now find ourselves in.
As other noble Lords have said already, we want to get devolution back and up and running as quickly as possible; that is the aim and objective of all sensitive people. But it cannot be sustainable if we continue with a position that sees the imposition of a protocol which trashes strand 3 of the Belfast agreement, as amended by the St Andrews agreement, and which also does great damage to strand 1 of that agreement. The fact of the matter is that not only are those strands impacted by the effects of the protocol but the principle of consent has been completely undermined. In the New Decade, New Approach document—which led to the restoration of the Assembly in January 2020—annexe A commits this Government to ensuring that Northern Ireland is a fully integral part of the UK internal market. So when we talk about the implementation of New Decade, New Approach commitments, we are still waiting for that to happen.
Although the protocol Bill has been introduced—it has had its Second Reading debate and Committee stage—we are still waiting for it to be progressed in the absence of any progress on the talks. I would be very interested in hearing from the Minister when he comes to wind up what the latest state of play is in relation to the talks, because, like others, I am concerned that we do not have very much time. This Bill institutes a six-week delay and then a further six weeks to the calling of an election, and that takes us to 19 January. It seems to me that there is going to have to be an enormous amount of heavy lifting in the negotiations and talks that have to take place between now and that date. There is no indication, as yet—though perhaps the Minister can indicate—of any change in the negotiation mandate of the European Union. There are aspects, even under the Government’s proposals in the July 2021 Command Paper, and in order to get to an agreement which will see devolution restored, that will require changes to the protocol itself. Therefore, it seems that time is very short indeed.
Although reference has been rightly made to concerns around giving civil servants powers such that are contained in this Bill—all of us regret seeing the situation where civil servants are put in that position—we have to remember that these are Northern Ireland civil servants. Even if the Assembly was restored overnight, under the current conditions it is not civil servants from Northern Ireland who would be making decisions; it would be civil servants in the Commission of the European Union proposing laws which apply to Northern Ireland. So when we talk about democratic deficit, concerns about the role of civil servants and unaccountability, it should be the concern of everyone—unionists, nationalists and non-aligned; anyone who is concerned about democracy, decision-making, accountability and transparency—that the powers over large swathes or our economy, agri-food, VAT, customs and so on should be made by people in Northern Ireland who are accountable to the electorate of Northern Ireland, or certainly accountable to someone in the United Kingdom at least. But that is not what we have at the present time.
We have the current court case that is going on in relation to the Acts of Union; judgment has been reserved in that, so I do not want to say a lot about it. However, the fact of the matter is that courts in Northern Ireland have ruled that there has been a breach of the Acts of Union as a result of the protocol—“subjugated” is the word that has been used.
For all these reasons, we find ourselves in a very difficult position, where it is unsustainable to imagine the operation of the institutions of the Belfast agreement, as amended by St Andrews, operating until the protocol is sorted out. As I have said, I look forward to hearing of progress on talks, but that seems to be some way off. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, mentioned talks among parties in Northern Ireland. That is all very well, and I have no particular objection to that, but this issue is not going to be solved by talks among parties in Northern Ireland, unlike previous situations. This is going to be solved either by decisions made here in this House through legislation or by talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom. I am not against having input from Northern Ireland parties, but this is not going to be solved by them sitting down together, because they cannot effect the changes that are needed. That is just a fact of life.
My final point is about the discussion that has emerged over recent weeks and months on changing the agreement to overcome some of the difficulties we have in relation to the operation of the devolved institutions, the north-south bodies, the east-west bodies and so on, and the idea that we can sort this out—as some people crudely put it—by simply removing vetoes or, more precisely, by excluding some people. Northern Ireland operates today, and has for 50 years, on the basis of cross-community consensus for decision-making. There is no such thing as majority rule in Northern Ireland, and there has not been since the early 1970s. The Belfast and St Andrews agreements were both predicated upon a sufficient consensus of unionists and nationalists coming to an arrangement which could carry both communities. Talk of moving on and excluding the unionists is the road to disaster, just as in the period between 2003 and 2007—as has been referred to—when the Assembly was down because Sinn Féin/IRA robbed the Northern Bank and was still out murdering people in the streets and yet wanted to be in government. The Government then rightly said, “No, that can’t happen; you have to decommission your weapons”, and eventually a form of decommissioning did take place, and eventually it had to support the police. It is unimaginable that people would be in the Government of Northern Ireland without supporting the police and doing these things, but that is what we were expected to accept at that time.
I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that, going forward, the principle of sufficient consensus—the requirement to have unionist and nationalist support—is absolutely essential both to the operation of institutions of governance in Northern Ireland and for any change there. Anything else would be a severe undermining of confidence and would do a great deal to set back any prospect of getting the devolved institutions restored.
We will obviously have a further opportunity to consider some more practical details when we come to Committee. The Minister looks surprised by that, but there may be some debate—who knows? I look forward to him responding to some of the issues I have raised so far.
My Lords, it is great to have among us another unionist from Northern Ireland—a man who addressed us so well in his maiden speech and brings, as we have heard, a fine record of achievement from his work in the Assembly. Along with all other noble Lords this afternoon, I welcome him most warmly.
In reflecting over the last few days on the matters which are the subject of this debate, I kept coming back to one simple thought: the Government of the United Kingdom have an inalienable duty to provide as effectively as possible for the administration of public affairs in Northern Ireland, as our fellow country men and women there are entitled to expect. That duty must be discharged in all circumstances. Today, as we know all too well, the circumstances are extremely difficult, as they have been on other occasions in the recent past. Indeed, it is an illusion to suppose that difficulties are ever likely to be remote or easy to overcome in the immediate future. There are so many possible sources of strain and tension.
How can it be otherwise when politicians whose fundamental constitutional objectives are diametrically opposed—not just different but in total conflict—have to find ways of coming together to satisfy the terms on which devolved power can be exercised, and so provide the people of Northern Ireland with the kind of government over their local affairs that most of them so clearly want? Back in 1998, few imagined that Sinn Féin would become, and remain, the principal party with which unionist politicians would have to try and co-operate in order to make devolved government work. When I ask myself what I would do as a unionist in such circumstances, I do not find it easy to imagine myself supporting a regime that included Sinn Féin. I greatly esteem fellow unionists in Northern Ireland for their willingness to set aside severe differences in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.
Frankly, it is hard to feel confident that the current breakdown of devolution will be the last. That is why Great Britain’s union with Northern Ireland needs to be strong and effective, capable of taking the swift decisions that are always going to be required in response to severe difficulties when they arise. The decisions will often tend to cause irritation to one party, one community or another, underlining the need for a strong union that can cope robustly with criticism as it seeks to safeguard the interests of our fellow country men and women in Ulster within the constitutional framework that the majority of them support. That support needs to be enlarged. More young unionists are needed, and more of them from families that have traditionally seen a unionist vote as incompatible with their identity. A strong union that seeks to create a shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland will attract new support for the cause that it embodies.
This legislation, which is very much in the mould of earlier provisions brought forward to deal with previous difficulties, responds to the latest turn of events in Northern Ireland, which causes the greatest distress to all of us. My noble friend the Minister will, I am confident, want to ensure that the legislation is implemented as successfully as possible during the period that it remains in force. I doubt that anyone understands better than he does how a strong union should operate to the benefit of all parties and all communities in Northern Ireland, not just politically but socially and economically.
This legislation will provide a fresh opportunity for this Conservative Government to demonstrate that its party meant what it said in its 2019 manifesto: we stand
“for a proud, confident, inclusive and modern unionism that affords equal respect to all traditions and parts of the community.”
The Conservative and Unionist Party used to refer rather less respectfully to other traditions when it was created 110 years ago through the amalgamation of the Tories and the Liberal Unionists who had deserted Gladstone over his scheme for Irish home rule in 1886, which rode roughshod over the unionist community. Over the years, the party has adapted its position in response to changing circumstances, displaying a fundamental aspect of its character that has brought it much success generation by generation.
For my part, I have one chief regret about this Bill and other pieces of legislation that have been rendered necessary by breakdowns of devolution, which I have mentioned in this House before. They introduce no arrangements to preserve the democratic accountability of the great public services: education, health, housing and social services. All are damaged—in some cases severely, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie—when devolution falters.
Stormont is Northern Ireland’s upper tier of local government as well as its devolved legislature. In that, it is unique. Scotland and Wales have systems of local government as well as devolved legislatures. Why cannot arrangements be devised to enable Members of the Assembly to continue scrutinising public services and working together on behalf of the people they have been elected to serve when devolution is in abeyance? Why should local government functions be deprived of democratic oversight when the devolved powers cannot be exercised because the political parties are in disagreement on matters that are unrelated to local government?
Responsibility for the current impasse in Northern Ireland lies chiefly at the door of one person: Mr Boris Johnson. I criticised him when he was in power and continue to do so. He said there would not be a border down the Irish Sea, and then promptly created one. He presented himself as the person who would restore full sovereignty to the United Kingdom, and then left one integral part of it subject to laws made in the European Union. What kind of unionist is that? The current Government have no more important task than the resolution of the huge difficulty Mr Johnson left them. In the past, the intervention of Prime Ministers has been required to resolve acute difficulties: Lloyd George in 1921 and Tony Blair in 1998. The current Prime Minister should surely consider the case for following their example.
Exactly 100 years ago this month, the legislation granting self-government to 26 counties of Ireland completed its passage through this House. The legislation was introduced by a Liberal Prime Minister of a coalition Government, David Lloyd George. It reached the statute book under his successor, Andrew Bonar Law, a man of Ulster Scots background and the strongest unionist ever to be a Conservative Prime Minister. They could not have imagined the warmth that infuses Anglo-Irish relations today as two sovereign Governments work together as partners. Some say the Irish Government should exercise joint authority over Northern Ireland. It is hard to think of a policy more calculated to increase instability in that part of our country. Bonar Law stood for a strong union, binding Northern Ireland to the rest of our country. His political heirs today should do the same.
My Lords, I start off by associating myself with the Minister’s remarks. It will be 40 years tomorrow since the awful Droppin Well bar tragedy that killed 17 people: six civilians and 11 soldiers. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families as they come up to the 40th anniversary of that awful tragedy.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Weir on his maiden speech. I have no doubt whatever that he will be a huge asset to this House, and I certainly welcome him to the House.
I take no pleasure in seeing this Bill in front of your Lordships’ House, but I recognise that the Secretary of State was mandated by legislation to bring forward such a Bill. We are all aware of why we are in this regrettable situation, without a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. When we had Assembly elections last May, we sought a mandate from the people of Northern Ireland on our opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol: we would not nominate Ministers to an Executive until real action was taken to address the real difficulties created by the protocol. There is no ambiguity around that statement. Why would we nominate Ministers to an Executive where a unionist Minister is required to implement a protocol that has no consent from within the unionist community?
Although limited in nature, the Bill allows the negotiations the space to find urgent solutions to the very real problem that exists as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol. The most disappointing fact of all is that there has been no fundamental progress on resolving the problems at the heart of the Northern Ireland protocol. I see no urgency from the European Union in addressing these issues. We do not know the strategy the Government are using for the talks with the European Union. My understanding is that none of the parties in Northern Ireland has been briefed about where those talks are at. The Northern Ireland parties have almost been pushed aside in these negotiations. That is the tragedy we find ourselves in today.
I have always believed that the decisions that impact on people’s lives in Northern Ireland should be made by accountable, local decision-makers. The European Union’s member states must be willing to be flexible when dealing with the very sensitive situation that we in Northern Ireland are in when it comes to the protocol. To date, there has been an unwillingness to be flexible. Equally, negotiations cannot continue forever. The people of Northern Ireland need to see results. For that reason, I welcome the publication of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. It should be implemented as soon as practically possible if there is continued inflexibility from the EU negotiators in dealing with these issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, mentioned briefly the most recent agreement on Northern Ireland—New Decade, New Approach—which was the basis on which devolution was restored. Commitments were made by all the parties in Northern Ireland. The one issue that has not been resolved since it was signed is the commitment by His Majesty’s Government to fully restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. This remains an outstanding commitment that has not been delivered—one that formed the basis on which my party signed up to the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
As I said earlier, I cannot say that I welcome the Bill to the House, but I recognise its necessity. We have been here before. It is true to say that, in some instances previously, decisions were being put on hold or simply not made. I commend the Government for being proactive in offering relevant assurances so that departments can do the necessary work. The Bill gives civil servants greater decision-making powers to allow public services to function. It also allows the Secretary of State to delay Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, with two deadlines: 8 December, with a further six weeks to 19 January. Clauses 6 to 9 make provisions for creating public appointments. Given the timetable that has been set for the restoration of the Executive and the pace of negotiations with the European Union, is the Minister hopeful that negotiations and the work that needs to be done will be completed by the European Union?
I will touch briefly on MLAs’ pay. If anybody in this House believes that reducing MLAs’ pay will change their mindset and that of our party, and that we will be rushing to set up an Executive and Assembly—that will not happen. This is a principled stand. Whether it be money, a future Assembly election, or hearing “joint authority” from some quarters, this is an issue of sincere principle regarding where we stand on the protocol. It is nothing to do with money or a future Assembly election. We would welcome the latter: I believe our party would increase our mandate in Northern Ireland. I have absolutely no doubt about that.
I finish by saying that we are a devolutionist party. We want to see a functioning Executive dealing with the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland. It would be functioning, were it not for the Northern Ireland protocol. We want to try to find a resolution to this problem. We want the Executive up and running, working for all the people of Northern Ireland, not just ourselves. We have said that in this House on many occasions. The sooner the matters are resolved, the sooner we can get back to a future Assembly.
The EU needs to step up to the mark and resolve the problem. My fear in all this is that the European Union has the future of devolution in Northern Ireland in its hands. I believe that there is only one chance now for the European Union to get it right. Let me say that as a party we will not accept a sticking plaster over the problem any longer or trying to kick the can down the road. That will not work any longer. We want to see real change to the protocol so that in Northern Ireland we can all move on.
My Lords, I add my warm congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Weir of Ballyholme, on his maiden speech and welcome him as another pro-union voice in this Parliament. I was honoured to be on the same platform as him at an anti-protocol rally some months ago, and his detailed knowledge is going to be needed if His Majesty’s Government are to get on with the Report stage of the protocol Bill. I am sure the noble Lord will add his voice to that.
“We are here today because we do not have an Executive … and we do not have an Executive because of the protocol.”
Those are not my words, although I agree with them; they are the words of the Minister of State in the other place when repeating what the honourable Member for Strangford said at Second Reading. The Minister went on to say that
“the hon. Gentleman is right: that is indeed why we are here.”—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/22; col. 861.]
So no one should think that there is any other reason for us having to have this Bill today other than that there is a protocol.
Of course, the Government have no alternative. It is law to bring forward the Bill. I must say that when the Assembly was not sitting for three years because Sinn Féin brought it down, I did not see a mad rush to reduce pay then and other measures. On the salary issue, it is interesting that Clause 10 states that salaries will be restored when a Speaker is put into the Parliament in Northern Ireland. I am not sure whether that is some kind of sweetener to get a Speaker back as quickly as possible. However, I assure the Minister that this kind of monetary incentive, which has been mentioned by other noble Lords, will not work because we in Northern Ireland face a big threat—an even bigger threat than we had before over 30 years of people trying to bomb us and terrorise us. We face the threat of our place as an integral part of the United Kingdom being whittled away by the protocol, and that transcends any monetary considerations.
Last week, I sat for nearly two days in the Supreme Court listening to a government lawyer tell us that Article VI of the Act of Union had been disapplied by the protocol. In the Northern Ireland courts, we heard first that it had been implicitly repealed, and then it went to the Supreme Court, which said that Article VI of the Act of Union had been subjugated by the protocol, and the government lawyer told us that it had been disapplied. I think being disapplied means that it has been broken, and we will hear from the Supreme Court in its ruling, even if it goes along with implying that we in Parliament all knew when we voted—I did not—for the withdrawal Act that we were getting rid of Article VI. We will probably see that judgment in the new year, but it will not make a difference if it rules against it as it is a political battle. It is a two-strand approach to getting rid of the protocol.
I do not fear an election in Northern Ireland as I think pro-union people will be even more determined to come out and vote as they have seen what has happened over the past months. However, the Minister should think about planning, so that council elections are brought forward and are not held on the weekend of the Coronation because, as noble Lords may not know, it would take a long time to count those votes and that would bring us into the Monday of the Coronation. If we are going to have elections, let us combine them and have them on the same day in April.
I do not think that anything will have changed by then as far as the European Union is concerned. Negotiations seem to be going nowhere. We do not get any reports or updates; we just have to listen to selected journalists who have been told what is happening and read the little tidbits put in the newspapers. It seems to me that the EU is still working under the same negotiating mandate, and that is not going to work.
We cannot be left under EU rules. Huge chunks of the retained EU law Bill coming to us will not apply to Northern Ireland; we will be left even further behind as divergence takes place. Let us not forget that the protocol has not yet been fully implemented and we have no idea what will be happening to the grace periods that are ending.
The noble Lord, Lord Bew, spoke of the new technology that the EU has been talking about: this invisible border that we can now have in the Irish Sea. It is talking about technology that will make it all invisible so that it does not matter. Well, if it is invisible at the Irish Sea border, it can jolly well be invisible at the frontier between Northern Ireland and the independent country of the Republic of Ireland that is within the European Union. Technology could work—many people talked about that some time ago—but, if it is to be invisible, it can be invisible where it should have been in the first place.
As has already been mentioned, we are facing the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement in April, and President Biden wants to come—to Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. That is meant to hit people with the idea that, to get President Biden here, we have to get the Assembly working again; that we cannot possibly have him here if the Belfast agreement is not being properly carried through. But I am not sure many people are that worried about whether President Biden will come or not. He has shown that he does not really—or does not want to—understand the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland, so I do not think that will be a particular influence on getting any changes.
Then just last week—I have to mention this because it shocked so many people—Ursula von der Leyen spoke in Dublin about the years of Ireland being in the European Union and how wonderful it was. She then appeared to liken the IRA to freedom fighters in Ukraine, and likened the United Kingdom to Putin. Your Lordships may say that she did not actually say that, but she certainly spoke in such a way that everyone who listened knew what was going on. How can we in Northern Ireland think that Ursula von der Leyen, as President of the Commission, really has the interests of the Belfast agreement and peace in Northern Ireland at heart when she can go to Dublin and say that?
Finally, let us remember that the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot legislate on so many contentious issues—social security, welfare reform, abortion, legacy and so on. Also, there is this idea that the cost of living will be absolutely solved tomorrow if the Assembly and the Executive are back, but I genuinely do not feel that many people in Northern Ireland waking up every morning, listening to the radio, are thinking to themselves, “I just wish the Executive was back. I just wish we had an Assembly.”
We know that most of the changes—and the direction of change—to help people in Northern Ireland, and the money involved, come from the United Kingdom Government. That is what we have to recognise. I know that noble Lords will not want to—indeed, many of my friends in the Democratic Unionist Party will not want to—but we need to face up to the fact that we, here, are the legislature for Northern Ireland and have been so on many issues over a long period of time. We should not try to pretend otherwise.
At least with direct rule, or full integration as I would call it, we did not experience all this stop and start. It may be that we are going to have to look and whether in the long term this kind of devolution in Northern Ireland can actually work. The priority now has to be—I know the Minister and the Government know this—that, if we can put this legislation through in one day as we have for other important issues regarding Northern Ireland in the past, we should get the protocol Bill here for its Report stage as soon as possible, immediately. I am sure noble Lords will not want to amend it too much but, if they do, it has to go to the other place and come straight back here again. The Government have to show their determination that they mean to get rid of the protocol. If we cannot get rid of it by using negotiations in the EU then we have to use the protocol Bill. If we want devolution back, we are going to have to get rid of that protocol. That is the real issue facing us today.
My Lords, I share the pleasure of the House in the maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Weir of Ballyholme. I should add that I have known him for over a quarter of a century since I was working for the Telegraph and I started sniffing around his then discreetly-emerging dissidence from the policy of my late friend Lord Trimble. He was always supremely well-informed even then, if a little too discreet for my taste as a working journalist at that point.
I express appreciation to him for the tribute to my late friend Lord Trimble. It was gracious of the noble Lord to speak in those terms, and of course Lord Trimble himself had to deal with just the kind of temporary extensions and suspensions of the institution during the years 2000 to 2002. Those were sometimes difficult and vexatious debates in this Parliament and in the Assembly at Stormont, so perhaps by the standards of that period there is more consensus here today than there was back then, which is welcome.
I support the Bill but with a significant reservation. The legislation before us authorises the Minister to put off the calling of an election—an election that, as we have heard, has little to no support in Northern Ireland—by just six weeks. On Thursday this week the Minister will extend by six weeks the deadline for an election to be called. He and the Government hope that by 19 January next year there will have been a negotiated solution. Of course we are all hoping for that, but to what degree is it actually likely? Few believe that it is. There have been a mere 45 working days since the talks restarted last October. Ministers have given little information so far about how those talks have progressed but, for all the improved mood music, there is as yet little sign of an agreement around a solution for the protocol and the current crisis in Northern Ireland.
The six-week extension to 30 working days includes Christmas and the new year. For exactly half of that time, this House will be in Recess. There may well be some progress over these weeks, and let us hope that is the case. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, has drawn attention to some of the positive signs emanating from Dublin, no doubt because of his peerless contacts there with many of his former pupils, who are on the southern side of the border as well as on the northern side of the border, presently here in this House.
However, that all still seems a bit unlikely. It cannot be banked on or taken for granted. We do not even have an outline of what a solution might look like, at least before 19 January of next year. This legislation is legally required. It is entirely correct that the legal basis for that election having been called on 28 October 2022 is addressed, but the most likely outcome is that on 19 January 2023 the Secretary of State will be in the same position as he was just over five weeks ago on 28 October.
Not only must the deal be agreed now between the various Northern Ireland parties, even if they are not involved in all aspects of the deal itself, but we and they will still need to digest whatever is agreed and sound out the grass roots in all communities. It is widely understood that the real date we are working to is, as has been alluded to, the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement on 10 April 2023, but even that may come and go without a complete resolution. There are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, pointed out, council elections in Northern Ireland in May of next year. I would think that the election must be held before, or on the same date as, those elections at the very latest.
As many Members of this House have said, this Bill is most necessary. The limitation on the Secretary of State’s ability to postpone an election is well intended and right. What we are debating is whether the timing which it sets for a new election is at all realistic. Is it now in step with the timeframe of the talks being held with the EU? Are the Government boxing themselves in unnecessarily, and can my noble friend the Minister reassure this House whether our concerns about this timetable are in any way realistic?
My Lords, I commence by giving a very warm welcome to my noble friend Lord Weir of Ballyholme. I also congratulate him on his excellent speech. I have no doubt whatever that this House will hear a lot more from my noble friend and that we will witness his forensic examination of legislation, so Ministers may not always be so pleased with what he has to say concerning legislation that comes before your Lordships’ House.
I acknowledge that the Secretary of State has been mandated by legislation to bring forth the Bill. Like many others in your Lordships’ House, I do not wish to be in a position where such a Bill is required. In the other place, my DUP colleagues made it abundantly clear that our party desires to see a functioning Executive dealing with the matters that affect the lives of the people of Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State said at the introduction of the Bill in the other place:
“I believe strongly that the people of Northern Ireland deserve a functioning … Executive, where locally elected representatives can address issues that matter most to those who elect them.”
However, I remind noble Lords that if anyone thinks that a restored Stormont would somehow have a magic wand to wave at and solve the crisis facing the people of Northern Ireland, including their cost of living problems, they had better wake up and smell the coffee. In reality, we need to remember that the hospital waiting lists that have been extending down the years did so when the Assembly was functioning. The lack of houses being built in Northern Ireland was also happening when the Executive were there. The idea that somehow the answer to all the ills of the people of Northern Ireland is the restoration of the Assembly certainly needs to face reality.
I also remind your Lordships that we should not be deluded because the Assembly can address only some of the issues that matter to the electorate. The Government, aided and abetted by this House, and because of a grubby deal that was done with Sinn Féin, took powers that were granted to the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on the most sensitive issue, namely the right to life of the unborn child, out of the Assembly’s hands, as they did on the legislation concerning the Irish language. Practically with the stroke of a pen and in defiance of the wishes of the electorate, the devolutionary powers granted to Stormont were pushed to the side. They tagged the most liberal abortion rights on to a Bill that had absolutely nothing to do with the issue.
Northern Ireland has been without an Executive or functioning Assembly at Stormont not because of the unwillingness of any Assembly Member to deal with the many serious, complex or critical issues facing the community in Northern Ireland at this most challenging time but because of the intransigence of the European Union to resolve the Northern Ireland protocol, which strikes at the very heart of who the people of Northern Ireland are. As British citizens, we have the right to be a full and equal part of the United Kingdom and to enjoy the equal privileges of being so. That, in reality, has been denied to us through the protocol.
Before the election, no one in Northern Ireland was under any illusion as to where the Democratic Unionist Party stood on the Northern Ireland protocol and what steps the party would take if our candidates were successful in that election. Our leader sat in countless TV studios and did numerous radio interviews, backed up by media articles, to make our position clear. We produced an election manifesto stating clearly that the DUP would not nominate Ministers to an Executive until decisive action was taken to clearly address the grave difficulties created by the Northern Ireland protocol.
There was no ambiguity on the part of the Democratic Unionist Party. Those who want to criticise the party for fulfilling its election manifesto can do so and continue to do so. However, it will not change the principled stand the party decided on and brought before the electorate. When it stood on that manifesto, it meant it. It asked the people to give it a clear mandate. Let me make it abundantly clear that the DUP will not be driven, cajoled or whipped into breaking faith with its electorate.
The Government and European Union are aware that, until they effectively deal with the underlying issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, there will be no going back to Stormont. The Northern Ireland protocol is a clear and brutal breach of the Belfast and St Andrews agreements. In the other place Mr Julian Smith, the MP for Skipton and Ripon, said:
“I realise this is a debate about Executive formation, but Executive formation in Northern Ireland comes from protocol renegotiation, and protocol renegotiation comes from the EU having some amnesia about its views on the Conservative party position on Brexit and moving forward in the best interests of the citizens of Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/22; cols. 818-34.]
Every day, the protocol does harm to Northern Ireland’s position and place within the United Kingdom. That may not mean much to many, but thousands of people have died and are left with life-threatening injuries because of the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland to cherish their British heritage and not yield to the bloodthirsty IRA terrorists who roamed our streets for over 30 years. Even the authors of the Belfast agreement have been betrayed by the Northern Ireland protocol. The late Lord Trimble stated:
“Make no mistake about it, the protocol does not safeguard the Good Friday Agreement. It demolishes its central premise by removing the assurance that democratic consent is needed to make any change to the status of Northern Ireland”.
The New Decade, New Approach document committed the United Kingdom Government to restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom’s internal market. That meant that there should not be regulatory barriers to trade on the movement of goods that travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and remain in the United Kingdom. Article 6 of the Act of Union gives the people of Northern Ireland the right to trade freely with the rest of this United Kingdom. That is being denied to the people of Northern Ireland today. Although that commitment was made in 2020, we will soon, God willing, be in 2023, and that commitment has not been delivered on.
Like my colleagues, I welcome the publication of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, but where is the urgency in getting it on the statute book? Indeed, many in your Lordships’ House want to park it, rather than swiftly process it. I state categorically: do that if you will, but engaging in such action only ensures that the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement will come and go without a functioning Executive.
It is also appropriate to state that, if the United Kingdom Government and the EU think that they can cobble together a makeshift agreement that does not meet the seven tests set down by the unionist community in the Province, they are sadly mistaken and their scheme will abysmally fail. The people of Northern Ireland were used as pawns in the trade-off between our Government and the EU in the Brexit negotiations, and that wrong must be put right. This Conservative and Unionist Government cannot be permitted to sell out the fundamental building blocks of this historic union to placate, appease or please the European Union.
Proposing this legislation, the Secretary of State said that it was a stopgap Bill—but how long the gap is will be determined by the actions, not the words, of our Government and the European Union. He also stated that he intends to act rapidly to amend Assembly Members’ salaries, yet he does not seem to have the same urgency when it comes to getting the promised £400 energy payments or the £200 heating oil payments into the hands of the people of Northern Ireland—why is that? It was promised that the £400 would be received before the Christmas period, but it is now evident that the delaying of these payments is linked to the use of political leverage. No one should use fuel poverty payments as a political pawn. In the midst of the rising cost of living, the Government’s failure to deliver the payments received by the rest of the citizens of the United Kingdom demands an urgent investigation.
The Secretary of State is exercised by the deep financial hole he has found in Stormont’s finances, under the stewardship of a Sinn Féin Finance Minister, and is threatening that measures must be taken to fill it. Yet, at the same time, he is pressing full steam ahead with providing whatever finances are necessary for abortion—but none for cancer treatment or other major health issues. We can certainly see where the priorities lie.
I see that the Bill also grants civil servants powers to make key public appointments. Could the Minister assure me that it would be possible to ensure that the unionist community will have its fair share of those appointments, rather than appointees being only from the nationalist, republican or Alliance groupings? Over recent years, we have witnessed that few from the Protestant community have received major appointments or chief executive positions throughout Northern Ireland, whether in private or in public bodies. Fair employment legislation seems to work for only one community, and that can no longer be overlooked.
In conclusion, I have stated that my party wants to see devolution work, but it must be on the basis of equality for all. Political stability will proceed only when there is consent across the political divide. The genuine demands of unionists can no longer be swept aside at the whim of any Government, and to move forward means respect for the integrity of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s place within it.
My Lords, I join all those who have spoken in warmly congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Weir, on his admirable maiden speech and welcoming him to the House, even though his arrival means that the border between the Cross Benches and the DUP is even more crowded—fortunately, cross-border relations are very good. I have no intention of being tempted into responding to some of the things said about the protocol in this debate with which I disagree rather profoundly, and I suspect that the noble Lord and I will be crossing swords on the matter in future. I made a firm resolution that I would talk about the Bill only and not about the protocol, and, as noble Lords can tell, I am not even mentioning the protocol, despite gross provocation from, for example, the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey.
It is a very unfortunate Bill; I regret it, but I support it. I regret it on constitutional grounds; we should not be passing retrospective laws and I very much regret that it confers on the Secretary of State power to legislate by a statutory instrument which we will not even see before it takes effect. This seems to be very wrong, but the admirably clear Northern Ireland Office memorandum explains that we are where we are and that we have little choice. I was grateful for the letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, which also makes that pretty clear. So we are where we are, and we have to pass the Bill.
I regret it because I regret the situation which has led to its necessity. Those who voted in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections were entitled to see both a working Northern Ireland Assembly and an Executive. It seems that it is not right that their choices are being put to one side.
I also regret it because, as a former civil servant, I have deep sympathy with the plight in which senior officials in the Northern Ireland Civil Service as going to find themselves as a result of this Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, pointed out that we are not in an unprecedented situation, but the economic and financial situation in Northern Ireland is much more complicated now than it was when this situation last obtained. Particularly in the health and education sectors, there are very serious problems which will have to be dealt with without political control, political steer and political decision-making. I feel very sorry for these civil servants; were I one of them, I would find this situation really quite difficult. However, we are where we are and, therefore, with regret, I support the Bill.
My Lords, first, I join others in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Weir, his maiden speech and his participation in the House. I am absolutely certain that we will hear a great deal more from him, with his detailed knowledge of Northern Ireland, and I think that the House will appreciate the contributions he can make. So I bid him welcome.
All of us are saying that we do not like the Bill or where we are, but we have to support it. However, we are all also saying that not only are elections not a solution but they will not be a resolution. So, in a sense, it is a very odd situation, where elections are not the issue of democracy; it is delivery that people are looking for. Most people would argue that all the indications suggest that an election would not bring about a very significantly different result, so we would not be any better off.
Nobody can be in any doubt whatsoever that the DUP, and indeed other unionists, are highly exercised by and oppose the protocol; they believe that it has to be either removed or dramatically altered. That is clearly understood; it would be very difficult to listen to this debate and not appreciate that. Frankly, I find it unacceptable that this is an argument that Northern Ireland politicians—Northern Ireland Assembly Members—cannot resolve because they have no power over it whatsoever. Not being there does not get us anywhere near a resolution of their perfectly legitimate concerns, but it leaves the people of Northern Ireland without effective governance. The DUP should be prepared to accept that their argument about the protocol, legitimate as it is, should not really justify not making the democratic process in Northern Ireland function.
The other thing I wanted to say—
I thank the noble Lord for allowing me to speak very briefly. He says that the protocol and going back into the Assembly are completely separate, but does he not understand that a DUP Minister, or another Minister, has to implement the protocol in lots of ways? Would he want to do that: implement something if he really did not agree with it?
Frankly, Ministers have to do that all the time; we see them having to explain themselves in the House. The point that the noble Baroness is making is perfectly valid in the sense that Governments have to implement the laws under which they operate. However, the challenge I put back to her is that the people of Northern Ireland need to have their day-to-day problems addressed, and that is not happening. The question is: how legitimate is it to put those everyday issues which matter to the people of Northern Ireland above or below the needs of the protocol? I am not arguing that the protocol is not an issue; I am suggesting that it is not a justification for being where we are.
The Minister, in his introduction, explained that this is not a situation he relishes or wished to be in. We all understand that, but I am slightly concerned about the deadlines. The first deadline is this Thursday, and the second is 19 January. It has been said by numerous speakers in this debate that there is very little evidence of an active negotiation to try to get some kind of resolution. So my concern is that, by the time we get to 19 January, the Minister will come back and say that he will have to introduce another Bill to extend it even further. We need to know where the active process of trying to address these issues is. There does not seem to be enough urgency or engagement to try to secure an outcome.
In that context, I say in passing that the talk about penalties and salaries, again, does not change anything; it has been done before. It has been argued, of course, that the overwhelming majority of Members of the Assembly wish to be there, yet they are going to have their salaries cut, in spite of the fact that they are not the cause of the Assembly not meeting. The Government say that any kind of discrimination would be legally very difficult.
Before continuing, I make it clear—I have it on record; I just checked it myself—that I have consistently criticised Sinn Féin for their refusal to deliver the Assembly. So I certainly do not take sides on this: no party should stop democracy functioning, as I said at the time.
We have a situation where there are a growing number of people in Northern Ireland who regard some of these debates, important as they are, as much less important than the cost of living crisis, the energy crisis and the fundamentals of day-to-day life which are not being adequately addressed by their representatives. The fact that the cash to help for fuel bills is being delayed has already been mentioned. I do not know whether it is because of intransigence, but I believe that had we had an Assembly, this probably would have been addressed on the same terms and timescale as everywhere else in the UK. This is really fundamental: of the people who are desperately worried about whether they can afford to heat their house—coming from Scotland, I know how cold it can be in the north—and are worried about their energy bills and the cost of living, I wonder how many of them say, “Please resolve this political issue”, rather than, “Please sort out my energy bill and help me with the cost of living; why aren’t our local politicians doing that?”
We have debated the outcome of the protocol in the protocol Bill; therefore, I do not wish to take more than a minute on this subject. The DUP keeps talking about the conditions that have to be met, but, as far as I can see, they are asking for irreconcilable conditions—that there should be no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and no border on the island. We had that when we were in the EU, but now that we are out of the EU, I do not see how it is possible to have no border, given where we are at. I accept that Boris Johnson signed this in a hurry for political reasons in an election, called it “getting Brexit done” and an “oven-ready” deal—it was none of those things—and knew perfectly well that it did not do what he claimed it did. He has absolutely dumped us in this; he has left us with this mess. Nevertheless, resolving it will require some degree of checks of balances. The questions are: how limited can they be, how acceptable can they be, and can they be done in a way that makes life practically constructive for the Northern Ireland economy and the people of Northern Ireland?
There is a more fundamental difficulty: Northern Ireland, being in the single market, is inevitably subject to EU rules which, because we are not a member of the EU, we no longer have a part in shaping. I am not sure how we can resolve that, because that is the deal that we have signed. If we simply suspended the protocol, which is what the legislation wants to give the Government the power to do, we would not just be suspending the protocol; we would be tearing up our treaty on exit from the EU. The whole of the UK economy would then be in a very parlous state, being not only outside the EU but in economic conflict with it.
What concerns me is the way people can say, “We have to have this, this and this”, without recognising the inherent contradictions in those supposed conditions. For example, when the DUP says that it had a mandate at the last election and will have a mandate if there is another election, it is not a mandate that is within the DUP’s power to deliver. That is really the point that it needs to address.
We now have legislation—clearly, we cannot carry on past the deadlines without legislation—but this cannot go on indefinitely. People are suffering, which is why the extra powers in the Bill are necessary to ensure that the basic day-to-day decisions that are urgently needed will happen, but not in circumstances that are democratically accountable or even properly transparent.
If power-sharing means anything, it absolutely requires a degree of consent, but it also requires co-operation and compromise. If that is not forthcoming, it does not function and it is not democratic. If the DUP is absolutely uncompromising in its unconditional refusal to accept some degree of compromise—I agree that it is entitled to ask about the negotiations so it can see what is going on—and is not prepared to accept that, what would it accept? If it is nothing that can be delivered by the UK Government or the EU, it will have to recognise that reforms that are compatible with the way Northern Ireland is governed and with the Good Friday agreement would become irresistible. That is something it needs to consider.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. He talks enormous common sense, and that, of course, is what we want in a debate on Northern Ireland. But as your Lordships have witnessed over the last two and a half hours, it is not always easy when dealing with Northern Ireland issues. It never will be and it never was, but that does not mean to say that we cannot solve this issue. It is a question of how determined the political parties in Northern Ireland are and how determined the Government and the European Union are.
Before we come to that, I very much want to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Weir, who made a quite outstanding maiden speech. He made it, as your Lordships will recall, without a single note in front of him, with great fluency and, above all, with great experience and wisdom collected over the past 20-odd years, which is roughly the time I have known him. It is a great privilege to be able to speak in a debate with him. We all welcome him to our deliberations, not just on Northern Ireland but on wider issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Weir, rightly referred to his and my noble friend Lord Trimble. The noble Lord, Lord Godson, paid a very good tribute to our mutual friend; he also wrote an extremely good and unique biography of Lord Trimble, which is probably one of the finest blow-by-blow accounts of the negotiations in 1998. We all miss Lord Trimble. I have not had the opportunity properly over the past few months since he died to pay tribute to him. He was undoubtedly a giant—there is no question about that. All of us miss him personally. I miss him for the chats we used to have on classical music and all sorts of other things. It is perhaps unusual to think that a Welsh-Irish Catholic had such a unique relationship with a Northern Ireland Protestant, but it worked extremely well. We all miss him.
As many have said, we accept the Bill in front of us but we do not welcome it. There is nothing to welcome about it at all, because it reflects the dreadful situation in Northern Ireland at the moment, which has to be addressed; the Government have to do something about it. The effects of having no institutions in Northern Ireland—whether they be the Assembly or the Executive, or the north-south and east-west institutions—are really dramatic. I cannot quite agree that the institutions, or the lack of them, would make no difference in this current economic climate. I think they would. The fact that Wales has a Senedd that deals with the economic and social issues in front of the people of Wales, and that people in Scotland have the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, means that solutions to problems can be geared according to the way that they think the people of Wales and Scotland would react to them. Of course the people of Northern Ireland should expect representatives to be able to deal with these hugely significant issues in a very special Northern Ireland way. It is not right to say that the absence of the Assembly or the Executive is meaningless. It is hugely significant to the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland.
The issues raised by former heads of the Northern Ireland Civil Service over the last few weeks are valid. When, a couple of years past, we had to introduce legislation to allow civil servants to take decisions in the absence of elected representatives, it was a different world; now, the civil servants have to institute cuts and reductions in services. What mandate do they have to say that that should be cut there or that this should be cut here? That is a political decision that should be made by politicians, so I actually feel very sorry for them; they should not be put in that situation. But what is the option? Government has to go on, and that is the best but least worst option at the moment.
I agree entirely with the late Lord Trimble and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, when he says that the issue of consent is absolutely crucial to the success of the Good Friday agreement and the St Andrews agreement. There has to be consent across the board, but that also means the consent of nationalists too, whose views on the protocol are different from those of unionists, as my noble friend Lady Ritchie made absolutely clear. The violation of the agreement—which is the case with regard to the lack of consensus—is there, but so is the violation of the agreement in not having the institutions. There should be institutions in Northern Ireland because they were set up by the Good Friday agreement and the St Andrews agreement. That is equally a violation of those agreements. But telling each other that everybody is violating everybody else in a sense is not going to answer the problems that we have in front of us.
At the time of the creation of the protocol, which was drawn up as a result of the decision to leave the European Union, there was no functioning Executive or Assembly for the whole of that period. Had there been so, it would have been for the Northern Ireland politicians to resolve how to deal best with Brexit. As it was, the issue was rushed, it was hurried and it was poor, and it was not accepted. One of the reasons for that was that, on that occasion, Sinn Féin decided that it did not want to ensure that there was an Executive and Assembly in place. Had there been so, would it have been different? I think it would have been. That is why the issue of talks in parallel is important.
The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, rightly said that, ultimately, this is to be resolved only between the European Union on the one hand and the United Kingdom on the other. But I believe that the Irish Government could play a different role than they have in the past, by looking at the detail of any discussion. But that has to be done in parallel with negotiations or talks between the Northern Ireland parties on how to deal with the issue.
If there were a functioning Executive, they would not have been left out. They would have talked about it and they would have dealt with these issues. I still think that there is an opportunity for that to happen, but it cannot be done in seven weeks. That is absolutely the case. Frankly, I think it is a bit daft putting in a deadline of seven weeks; I just do not understand the logic behind it, at all. There is Christmas in between so, for at least two or probably three weeks, nothing—but nothing—will happen. Of course it will not—it is Christmas. These negotiations and talks will not really start until the second week in January. Are we really saying that two or three weeks will resolve the enormous issues which we have just been talking about for two and half hours? Of course not.
I urge the Government really to think a bit more about that 19 January deadline. Unless it is a clever ruse—which I do not think it is—I rather suspect that it needs to be rethought. George Mitchell put in a clever ruse: he said that 10 April 1998, Good Friday, would be the deadline and that, if we did not get there, he would go home to New York. It worked, but there was a much longer period in between, and—this is the point—there was a proper, more effective talks process. The problem we have had over the past nine months is that there has not been any process; there has not been a process nor any negotiations, as far as I know. It is all secret; that is what we are told. No one knows what is happening. We are told they are “technical”, but I do not have a clue what that means. What is a “technical negotiation”? I assume, though I do not know, that they are talking about electronic devices to work out how the protocol works, but I doubt that is what it is.
There is not sufficient transparency about the detail of the negotiations. You cannot have a blow-by-blow account of what happens every day, but there should be some idea of whether people are talking to each other. Are Ministers talking to each other? Are civil servants talking to each other? Are experts talking to each other? Are Northern Ireland people talking to other Northern Ireland people? We do not know; no one tells us.
There is an opportunity between now and Christmas to devise a plan and to decide on a timetable and a structure so that, when we all come back in the second week in January, we will know what exactly is being negotiated, where they are negotiating, who is doing the negotiating, and how it links with negotiations in Belfast and in Brussels and London. There is no evidence that anything has happened over the last eight months.
It must begin to happen properly; it must not drift. The great danger in Northern Ireland is always drift. You can drift into violence; you can drift into a vacuum; you can drift into a position where nobody wants the institutions any more because it is all too difficult, and so we all go back into our respective corners. That is not the answer. The answer is that there should be proper negotiations after Christmas, so that we all know what is happening, if not the detail. That 19 January deadline should be fiction. I also think that Parliament should be kept informed on a formal basis every couple of weeks about what exactly is happening.
I hope that, when he winds up, the Minister will be able to address some of those issues and some of the important matters that have been discussed in the last two and a half hours.
My Lords, I thank the House for the quality and spirit of the debate that has taken place over the last few hours. To some of us in your Lordships’ House, it emphasises and underlines the important role that this House retains in our constitutional arrangements. The contributions this afternoon have shown a great degree of interest in and constructive consideration of the contents of the Bill, and indeed a real passion to move Northern Ireland forward. In that spirit, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, as always, for his very sensible, wise and constructive comments; I also thank the Liberal Democrats and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, in the same spirit.
I add to those who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Weir of Ballyholme, on his outstanding maiden speech. I thank him in particular for his kind words, along with those from the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, about our late noble friend Lord Trimble, who was rightly described by the noble Lord as a giant of Northern Ireland politics. I think that I have in the past described him as probably being up there in the unionist pantheon with Carson and Craig as one of the great leaders of unionism in Northern Ireland. I thank both noble Lords for their comments. I apologise for highlighting that I might have a better knowledge of some of the public houses of Ballyholme than the noble Lord who is from there, but I assure him that I will keep supporting the local economy with friends in that respect.
I repeat what I said at the outset, and what many noble Lords have said in the course of the debate: no Government would want to be in the position in which we find ourselves today. It is highly unsatisfactory that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are not functioning properly and doing the job that we would all expect them to do. For the avoidance of doubt, and as somebody who worked for previous Secretaries of State, I can tell noble Lords that we made exactly the same criticisms in the period between 2017 and 2020, when it was Sinn Féin holding up the Executive; there is no inconsistency in our approach to those matters. Like noble Lords across the House, we want to see the institutions restored at the very earliest opportunity and we are working diligently to try to ensure that this happens. As I say, it is clear from noble Lords’ contributions that they share that desire.
I will address one point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, in response to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, around reforming the institutions. I have been involved in this for quite a long time now, and I stand by the ground rules for political talks that were established back in 1996. They make it clear that changes to the governance arrangements and institutions in Northern Ireland do indeed have to proceed on the basis of sufficient consensus; that requires the support of parties representing the majority of unionists and the majority of nationalists. Any future recommendations for changes, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, put forward about joint First Ministers, would always have to be judged in that context and against that background.
I am pleased that the House recognises largely that the Bill is a necessary if regrettable step—as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, described it—that we need to take so that the UK Government can ensure the continuance of governance arrangements in Northern Ireland. A number of noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, referred to the necessity of all-party talks at the current time. Like the noble Lord and noble Baroness, I have been through many talks processes in Northern Ireland over the years—some successful and others, regrettably, less so. The Government are committed to continuing very close dialogue with each of the parties. We will judge, when the time is right, whether that needs to move forward on the basis of bilateral discussions or whether it needs to be in a multilateral format; we will judge what is the right format at the appropriate time. But I take on board what the noble Lord said about the need for a plan in this respect.
I will respond to some of the other points raised during the debate. Unsurprisingly, in a debate about the Executive formation Bill, the Northern Ireland protocol loomed large because, as many noble Lords, particularly those on the DUP Benches, made abundantly clear, the principal reason why no Executive is up and running is the Northern Ireland protocol. I was very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bew—I should call him my noble friend—for a number of the suggestions he put forward as to how things could move forward. I want to take away his suggestions and discuss them with colleagues back in the department.
The noble Lord referred to the importance of strands 3 and 2 of the agreement. That is extremely important. It is common for people to look at the Belfast agreement through the strand they prefer or to which they are most attached. That has been characteristic of some in the European Commission in the past, regrettably. It is clear that the Belfast agreement is a three-stranded agreement in which all the strands are interlocking, and all need to function alongside each other properly. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for making that point clear.
The noble Lord also talked about what he described as “skulduggery” across the border, which has always been with us. He made some suggestions in that respect. I remind him that the 2015 fresh start agreement, in which I was involved, did indeed establish a cross-border joint agency task force to deal with some of the issues to which he referred. I believe that is functioning quite satisfactorily at the moment.
Unfortunately, I will have to disappoint a number of noble Lords when it comes to the protocol. We have debated the protocol Bill extensively in your Lordships’ House in recent weeks. As a member of the Bill team, I sat through all four days in Committee. Where I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, as I have said in the past, is in his very valid point that we suffered from the lack of a Northern Ireland Executive in the period after 2016. I well remember the joint letter in the summer of 2016 that Martin McGuinness, as Deputy First Minister, and Arlene Foster—the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, as she now is—as First Minister signed, setting out an agreed Executive position. Northern Ireland suffered quite considerably from the lack of an Executive in the period between 2017 and 2020.
Sadly, I will disappoint a number of noble Lords by not being able to go into a great deal more detail at the Dispatch Box as to the status of the negotiations and discussions that are taking place, other than to reiterate that, as noble Lords know and as was set out extensively in Committee on the protocol Bill, it has always been our preference to resolve the issues, which we accept do need resolving—there is no question about that—through talks with the European Union. The Foreign Secretary and Vice-President Šefčovič are speaking regularly and UK government officials continue to have talks with their counterparts in the EU.
When I talk about solutions to the protocol, I reassure noble Lords who raised the commitments in New Decade, New Approach that one of the objectives of the UK Government is, of course, to ensure that Northern Ireland’s position within the UK internal market is fully respected and upheld. There should be no doubt about that. No doubt we will return to these matters in much greater detail at a date to be determined at some point after Christmas.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, referred to the court case in the Supreme Court that she has been sitting through. We await its judgment in the new year with some interest.
My noble friend Lord Lexden referred to the need for a stronger union, in a speech that I think was in the best traditions not only of him but of somebody he and I would describe as a mentor on Northern Ireland matters, the late TE Utley, the great and wise Tory seer. If I can give my noble friend one piece of reassurance, he kindly referred to the Conservative manifesto from 2019, which I confess to have playing a small part in. The first sentence of the Northern Ireland section states that, as Conservatives and Unionists, the preservation of a secure and prosperous United Kingdom is our overriding goal.
My noble friend raised possible joint authority between London and Dublin, which has been raised by some in recent weeks. Again, to reassure him, our position is very clear: the Belfast agreement allows for two constitutional options for Northern Ireland. One is as part of the United Kingdom, the other is as part of a united Ireland on the basis of consent. It does not provide for a third way or in any way create a hybrid state in Northern Ireland; it is either wholly in the UK or wholly in a united Ireland. Therefore, joint authority would be totally incompatible with the provisions of the Belfast agreement. This Government will not countenance any constitutional provisions that are incompatible with the agreement, such as joint authority. That should be an end to the matter.
A number of noble Lords referred to the timetable set out in the Bill. I appreciate their concerns around that. Clearly, we hope that the time period afforded by the legislation will create the space required for talks on the protocol to make some progress but, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, and my noble friend Lord Godson, it is not and never has been our intention to create an indefinite or undefined extension to the Executive formation period. Obviously, I cannot predict what might happen over the next few weeks or months, but it would not be appropriate to have an open-ended delay to that deadline in the legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, referred to a number of issues. In particular, I will mention energy support. I think he said that the Government were preventing support. That is very much not the case. There are differences between the energy markets in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. There are also differences in the capacity of supply companies that operate in Northern Ireland compared with some of those operating in Great Britain. We are absolutely determined to get that money and support to people in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity. I think my honourable friend the Minister for BEIS said in the other place last week that he was very hopeful that we could get this money to people by January, but there is absolutely no intention on our part to delay, or anything of that nature. We are absolutely committed to helping people in Northern Ireland and ensuring that they are not disadvantaged vis-à-vis the rest of the United Kingdom. I hope that goes some way to reassuring the noble Lord on that point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, talked about the dates of the local elections. She will be aware that, under Section 84 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Secretary of State has the power to change the date of the elections. We will consider the timing of local elections in Northern Ireland in respect of the date of the Coronation in due course. We have a short period in which we can come to a decision on that—but I do understand her points.
If I have missed anything of major significance, as always, I will commit to writing to noble Lords, but in conclusion, I have said many times that none of us wishes to be in this position. We all wish to see the institutions established by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement; that has the support of the overwhelming majority of Members of this House and, I believe, the other place. We want to see all those institutions up and running and functioning, and Northern Ireland largely governing its local affairs in a local Assembly through its local, democratically elected politicians. In our view, that is the surest way for a strong, stable, prosperous and increasingly shared Northern Ireland within, I hope, the United Kingdom. That is our objective. In the meantime, the Bill is a regrettable necessity.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
My Lords, as announced by my noble friend the Chief Whip last week, Members now have one hour—so, until 7.12 pm—to table amendments. We will now take the Question for Short Debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Goddard. Committee on the Bill will start at a time to be shown in due course on the Annunciator.