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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2024

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, before I move to the Bill, this is the first opportunity I have had at the Dispatch Box to welcome my noble friend Lord Empey back to his place and to pass on formally my commiserations on the loss that he suffered at the end of last year. I also wish the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, a speedy recovery from the bout of Covid from which she is currently suffering.

As many in this House will be aware, I am an unashamed and unapologetic unionist who believes that the best future for Northern Ireland lies within a strong and prosperous United Kingdom. Over my 35 years of involvement in the affairs of Northern Ireland, defending, protecting and strengthening the union has been at the forefront of everything I have sought to do, while always recognising the legitimate interests and aspirations of nationalism. That, of course, will never change. It was for these reasons—to raise up a new Northern Ireland that works for the whole community and to strengthen the union in so doing—that I supported the agreement reached on 10 April 1998. That agreement has been the bedrock of all the progress we have seen over the past 26 years. The commitment of His Majesty’s Government to the agreement, including devolution and power sharing, remains unwavering.

The focus of this Government has always been on facilitating the return of the devolved institutions and upholding the Belfast agreement in all its parts. We want to see locally elected representatives taking local decisions, accountable through the Assembly to the people they serve. That is what this short Bill is intended to help achieve.

This House is well known for, and rightly prides itself on, its ability to scrutinise line by line detailed, complex and lengthy legislation. This Bill does not fit into any of those categories: it has a sole purpose and one main clause. The legislation will retrospectively extend the Executive formation period set out in the 2022 Act from 18 January to 8 February this year. This short extension will create the legal means to enable the Northern Ireland Assembly to sit and re-establish the Executive, which, as the law stands, expired on 18 January.

Importantly, a restored Executive will have access to the significant financial package announced by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland shortly before Christmas, worth around £3.3 billion, to secure and transform Northern Ireland’s public services. Ministers will be empowered immediately to begin working to address the needs of local people and realise Northern Ireland’s potential. Our firm desire is that this Bill will help to deliver that outcome and support the return of devolved government to the people of Northern Ireland, which, in my view, is the soundest and surest foundation for the future of the union.

On that note, I hope that, for the very last time, I commend a Bill of this nature to the House.

My Lords, I am pleased to follow the Minister. It must be one of his shorter speeches in a Second Reading debate, but it beats the length of the speech of his Secretary of State in the other place, which was even shorter.

The Bill is inevitable, but putting the election back by two weeks is clearly designed to put pressure on unionists. It should include powers to get the money paid out to the public sector workers which the Government have announced they have but are withholding, for political reasons, from workers who are entitled to it.

The Minister said that he hopes this is the last time he has to do this. But as he knows, we are in this position because the current talks and process have to resolve the issue of the Irish Sea border, which is the consequence of the constitutional outrage, as it was described by one commentator this week, of the sovereignty- denying Northern Ireland protocol—or Windsor Framework, as it has been renamed—and the denial of equal citizenship to the people of Northern Ireland.

One way of looking at this is that the legislation is inevitable, since the deadline for formation of the Executive has passed. However, the interesting aspect is that the election deadline is being put back by only two weeks, so we are going through the whole process of rushing emergency primary legislation through the other place and this House in one day, to get Royal Assent, in order to push a deadline back by two weeks. One has to question what is really going on.

We want devolution in Northern Ireland. The DUP has been in a difficult position on previous occasions and took the courageous decision, when there was much opposition in the unionist community, to move ahead and restore Stormont back in 2008. We took decisions then that many people did not agree with, because we are committed to devolution and are prepared to try to move Northern Ireland forward, even though the people in power along with ourselves and other parties continue to eulogise, promote and defend terrorism. That is very difficult for many of us who were personally on the receiving end of assassination attempts; but many of the people we represented for many years had their lives destroyed through the activities of the IRA, and other terrorists from the loyalist side.

The fact is that we now have only Sinn Féin going about eulogising these people, so this is a difficult position that people find themselves in as democrats, never mind as unionists. Nevertheless, we have been committed to devolution. Some of the strongest and most sustained periods of devolution were when the DUP had the First Minister’s position. Nobody need come to us and say that we do not want devolution, but it has to be on a sustainable basis—one to which unionists as well as nationalists can give assent. It has to be on the basis of fulfilment of the Belfast agreement, as amended by the St Andrews agreement, and it has to restore equal citizenship for the people of Northern Ireland. Those are not major or surprising demands; those are basic demands—rights that we are entitled to.

On the issue of what the Government should be doing, it is really an abdication. I know that the Minister said he is a committed unionist. It really is the responsibility of His Majesty’s Government to move ahead on those areas for which they have responsibility. They are the sovereign power and under the Belfast agreement, as amended, they ultimately have responsibility for Northern Ireland’s internal government. To see a political manoeuvre being perpetrated on those public sector workers, whereby money that has been announced is being withheld for political reasons, is really unconscionable.

There is a whole list of other areas of which one could say the same. Fifty pay awards, I think—it is certainly many dozens—have been made in Northern Ireland in the period of the Assembly’s suspension. Yet when it comes to this major issue, which was the subject of strikes across Northern Ireland last week, the Government are deliberately withholding the money. They need to step up and move that issue forward.

The Minister thinks that two weeks will be enough to get out of the present position. I hope that is the case and trust that, in the next few weeks, we will get proposals that, as the leader of our party in the other place, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, made clear, meet the seven tests and deliver on what we have been discussing with the Government for some considerable period.

There are constitutional, democratic problems, and we saw a number of examples just last week. On the Rwanda Bill, the supremacy of the protocol means that the EU’s charter of fundamental rights continues, including article 18 on the right of asylum. The issue of addressing immigration will not apply in the same way to Northern Ireland, and we already have major issues as far as that is concerned. There was animal welfare legislation last week that could not apply to Northern Ireland because of the protocol. Whatever your views, yea or nay, on the live export of animals, it could not apply there because of the protocol. On the Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Bill, we had the bizarre situation whereby the legislation extended to Northern Ireland but according to the Explanatory Notes, the substantive parts of it did not apply because of the protocol.

Our Select Committee looking at the Windsor Framework protocol is taking evidence on veterinary medicines. We heard evidence last week from farmers and the agri-food industry of serious concerns about the fact that we are approaching a deadline whereby essential veterinary medicines will not be able to be supplied to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, with possible knock-on effects for public health. The Government say they are working on it, but we have not seen anything come forward. There were other examples in the newspapers back home—and that was in only one week. I say to the Government: that is why it is important that these issues are dealt with in a fundamental and complete way, because when any unionist decides to accept or settle for any deal on these issues, they will take ownership of them.

That is why it is important for the people who are negotiating, for all of us within our party and for other unionists to be absolutely certain that these issues are properly addressed, now and in the future, so that we are comfortable with how Northern Ireland will be treated with regard to these constitutional, democratic and economic issues. We will not be subject any more to this unacceptable, anti-democratic and unconstitutional difference. Of course, within the Northern Ireland Assembly, when devolution is open, it is up to the Assembly to decide for itself, under its devolved powers, what it wishes to do compared with England, Scotland and Wales.

But in Northern Ireland we are the recipient, across 300 areas of law governing our economy, of laws made by a foreign polity in its interests, to which we have no input. We have no power to develop or amend and, under the Stormont brake proposal, only the power to reject—and even then, not necessarily effectively and subject to retaliation from the EU.

That is no way to govern part of the United Kingdom; it is not the basis on which the Assembly was set up. It is not equal citizenship. Therefore, I urge the Minister to take the message back to the Secretary of State and the Cabinet Office that these are the issues that are causing the problem. I share his desire that this is the last time that he has to bring such legislation, but it is really dependent on him and his Government as to whether that is the case.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks. I watched very briefly the beginning of the debate in the other place, and I have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, on the opening contribution from his right honourable friend in the other place. Indeed, I thought the shadow Secretary of State stole the show with at least some attempt to put some kind of gloss on what was before us in a very threadbare Bill.

I am entirely unconvinced as to the rationale for even having this Bill at this point, because I cannot imagine that there is any case at this stage, a few days after the last deadline ran out, for anybody to stand over a judicial review against the Secretary of State for not calling an Assembly election. For the sake of a few days, I do not think that that would survive. I hope that it is not a piece of political theatre that we are witnessing here.

Before dealing with the substance, I will follow on on the point about public sector pay. If ever there was any ambiguity over whether there was cross-party support for the Secretary of State’s actions in withholding this money, that was set aside in the Commons by the shadow Secretary of State earlier today. He made it very clear where he stood, saying that this tactic—because that is what it is—was fundamentally flawed and morally and politically wrong, and will not sustain itself even if we are forced through the fortnight this Bill provides for. I note the strikes that have occurred and the stresses that the withdrawal of significant parts of public services are putting on people. Let us imagine the parents of, say, children with severe disabilities, who are depending on a bus to arrive to take them to a day centre. Those parents do not know whether it will be coming this day or not. Do they have to make alternative arrangements? Do they have to get a relative to come in? Do they have to stay off work?

What are we putting these people through this for? We know the money is there; the Government are boasting about it. So let us sort that out; I think it would almost improve the atmosphere if it were done that way, because all we are doing is adding more stress to people who are already highly stressed. I hope that my noble friend can take that back to his right honourable friend in the other place, making it absolutely clear that there is no cross-party support for this policy. It is entirely counterproductive.

I also have to say that I feel that, when these one-day wonders come through—as they do from time to time on Northern Ireland affairs—one almost feels that this Parliament is like a legislative takeaway. You send out for a piece of legislation and ram it through both Houses in one day. People are fighting for pieces of legislation for a lifetime and yet we can stuff them through in one day. It is a terrible way to do business. I know that is not my noble friend’s choice, but it is almost always Northern Ireland stuff that is treated in this way.

The Secretary of State tells us that great progress is being made on restoring devolution. I hope that is true. In his opening remarks my noble friend talked about the Government’s commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. I point out to him that that was an all-party agreement, yet talks have been going on for two years in secrecy and none of the rest of the parties has been engaged except in a peripheral way. We all have talks with government and always have done, but this has gone on far too long. In fact, the best solutions always come when all the participants are at the table and accept the outcomes of the negotiations—otherwise we would have had no agreement. Trying to do it in a hole-in-the-corner way, with nods and winks here and nods and winks there, does not work. It does not stick. What happens if the DUP and the Government agree and come together? What about the rest of us? Maybe some of us will not agree with it when we see it: what happens then? It is a bad way to do business. Yes, people have to have their concerns addressed—I totally support that—but I think we have taken it far too far.

I do not want to rehearse the arguments that went on in this Chamber for so long over the departure from the European Union. I am no Europhile fan of the European Union. I am against the principle of a federal state: I never agreed with that. But the sort of problems that have arisen over our departure from the European Union were foreseeable, and they were foreseen in this House time and time again. A party delegation went to meet Prime Minister Cameron in February 2016 and, after that meeting, it was perfectly clear that there was no adequate plan to deal with our departure from the European Union should the people so wish.

We pointed out that a referendum has two outcomes and asked what the plans were if the people decided to leave. The answer we got was entirely unsatisfactory. Consequently, we recommended that people did not support leaving at that point under those terms and conditions. I would have to say that things are actually worse than I expected and that what we are dealing with now is the latest version of an attempt to bridge the virtually unbridgeable—which, of course, is the Windsor Framework, which is heralded as one of the Prime Minister’s most significant achievements since he has been in office.

I am quite sure that my noble friend will want to share with the rest of us what changes have been made to this agreement since February last year, and to show us the pages and the paragraphs where improvements have been made and some of the constitutional absurdities referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, dealt with. How are the seven tests that my noble friend behind me alluded to earlier today getting on? Is it going to be the case that this framework mark 2 is going to come up and we will have solutions? Perhaps the Minister can tell us what negotiations have taken place with the European Union, whether they have been successful and what mechanisms are going to be adopted and changes made to make these arrangements more palatable and more constitutionally correct—because, at the end of the day, that is what a two-year boycott has been about.

I listen to people talk about the Act of Union. We hear that some keyboard warriors have suddenly discovered that they have great skills in this area. It is a pity they were not exercising those skills when we had to deal with the Provisional IRA’s campaign against Northern Ireland over the years. Anyway, they have suddenly discovered the word “subjugation”, and I know my noble friend thinks of little else. However, can he explain to me why, if the Act of Union is the be-all and end-all and such a great thing—given that it was introduced in 1801 and it covered all of Ireland and Great Britain—there is an Irish Republic?

The truth is that this Parliament can legislate to say that apples are oranges. Important though it is, the Act of Union with Scotland would have been worthless if one more person had voted to leave than to stay. The same principle applies here. The best way to maintain the union is to maximise the amount of support on the ground so that more people want to stay in it than want to leave, and no Act of Parliament can substitute for that. In my view, we are fighting a sham fight while the people of Northern Ireland are suffering. We have heard about all the problems over health, education and industrial relations, which used to be the best in the UK. Now we are in a parlous situation.

Whatever comes out of this measure over the next couple of weeks, there at least has to be honesty, not a spin that something is something that it is not. People are sick of that. They want to know. If there are changes of substance, let us see what they are. If there are no changes of substance, people can say, “Look, we tried our best. It hasn’t worked out. We can’t go on like this. We’ve got to try another way”. Fair enough; we do not always get what we want, and not everything is successful the first time round. But the one thing I do not think people will tolerate is being led up the garden path and told something that is fundamentally untrue, so we will be watching very closely.

Lastly, I heard Sir Jeffrey in the other place saying that threats have been made against him. I totally deplore that. I can well understand it, because I know the threats that were made 25 years ago against our colleague Lord Trimble. He was tormented for years, I suspect by many of the same people who are tormenting Jeffrey today. The question is: what did they ever achieve? What did they ever get us? More misery, more deaths and destruction, and no progress. If anything is to come out of this, it is that that is not the way to go forward.

I thank noble Lords who have already spoken. I shall kick off where the noble Lord, Lord Empey, finished. I think all of us from Northern Ireland involved in public life are shocked to hear Sir Jeffrey refer in the other place to threats. It appears that there is nothing new under the sun. These people who hide in the shadows and use the internet, in the way that we have talked about on so many occasions, seek to do damage and to push things in a particular way. I send my solidarity to Sir Jeffrey and I am sure the whole House will want to echo that in respect of the threats that he has received.

The Minister has made remarks about the union and his strong support for it. I very much welcome those remarks at the opening of this short debate on this very short Bill.

I will make three points. First, these negotiations between the Government and the DUP are essentially about the union and its operation. The union brought me into politics at a very young age, as the IRA tried to terrorise us out of the union in the late 1980s. Of course, the union is about more than trade and transactions. It is about cultural, political and social issues. It is about our shared institutions, security, safety, defence, and our place in the world; it all depends on the union. Economics and internal trade have been the focus of discussions around the protocol and Windsor Framework. It is so important that the internal market of the United Kingdom is restored and that the promise—I will use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Empey—of the Act of Union is fulfilled in so far that internal trade is unencumbered.

During the three years that devolution was blocked by Sinn Féin—between 2017 and 2020—civil servants in Belfast and Dublin constructed arguments for what they called the all-Ireland economy. They did this by retrofitting areas of co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—perfectly normal, practical co-operation between two jurisdictions. They used that as a way of constructing an all-Ireland economy. Very clearly, there was not an all-Ireland economy before they constructed it and there is not one now. A cursory look at the Northern Ireland economy shows the integrated nature of the supply chains between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This assertion, by civil servants—who by their very nature were unaccountable because devolution was blocked at that time—caused untold difficulties in the negotiations between the United Kingdom and European Union, because the assertion was just accepted as fact and was not challenged. I am pleased that the United Kingdom Government moved, after the May years, to grasp that fallacy and assert the primacy of the United Kingdom economy. That is really important. I hope that the negotiations, when they conclude, will underline the importance of the United Kingdom internal market and reject the notion—because a notion is what it was and is—that there is an all-Ireland economy, built up by civil servants. Many of them, Members of the House will be interested to know, are now political commentators on everything that goes on in Northern Ireland.

My second point relates to finance. It is so important that the finances of Northern Ireland are put on a secure footing. I welcome the funding package that has been referred to. Given that a lot of the money in that package—I think it is £538 million—is recurring expenditure, which will happen year on year and is not a one-off, can the Minister confirm the position regarding that funding? Is it an ongoing commitment? Will it be baselined into the Northern Ireland block grant or is it a one-off amount of money that has been made available? I think the Minister will agree that it is important to have stability in finances as well as in politics, because the two are often inextricably linked.

The third and final point is that we have heard a lot from Members of this House, and from outside, about reform of the Belfast agreement. There was very little talk of reform of what Mark Durkan, the former deputy leader of the SDLP, used to refer to as the “ugly scaffolding” when it was working to the advantage of others in Northern Ireland. Now it is not, the calls are very loud. Reform will come when there is an all-party and all-community consensus in Northern Ireland for it. Imposed changes will not work. It appears that there are many who want to use the parts of the Belfast agreement they agree with but change the parts they do not agree with.

I was no fan of the Belfast agreement, especially in relation to the release of terrorist prisoners and the lack of linkage to the decommissioning of paramilitary weaponry, but the Belfast agreement was endorsed fully by a referendum of people in Northern Ireland and people in the Republic of Ireland. The basis of that agreement is consensus politics between the communities—not imposition. Noble Lords should remember that when speaking about issues in Northern Ireland.

I say to the Minister that I wish the Government and the parties well as they seek to find a sustainable, workable and—God willing—durable solution to the problems of the protocol and the Windsor Framework.

My Lords, before I come to what I want to say today, I want to remind the House that on Saturday evening I attended a memorial service at a local border school to remember its former headmaster. He was abducted by the IRA while across the border having a meal with his wife and was found the next day with a bullet through his head. The memorial also remembered three former pupils of that small border college in Aughnacloy on the Monaghan border.

There were many people there that evening who had served in the security forces, and I looked across their faces and wondered whether I would have been as brave as those men during the Troubles, when more than 3,000 people lost their lives. Some 60% of those deaths are attributable to the Provisional IRA, 30% attributable to loyalists and 10% to the security forces—but, as I have said in this House before, when you drill down into that last figure, it is something like 1%, because the 10% includes incidents where the security forces intercepted terrorists en route to shoot or blow up something.

That was a very solemn occasion and it vividly reminded me of what went on in Northern Ireland during those years. We hope that is behind us. I have three colleagues sitting on these Benches today who have the marks of those years on their bodies. The IRA tried to murder them. Today, those same people are feted as great, courageous people. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Dodds mentioned that we took risks beyond what we should have ever been asked to take to bring us to the situation we have today.

Did we need to be here today discussing this Bill? If only government had listened to us when we said the protocol would not work. But who did they listen to? They listened to the rigorous implementers saying, “Get it done—implement it rigorously and vigorously”, until government then had to acknowledge. We would not be here today had government listened to us. For two years, we pleaded with the Government: “This is not going to do the job. This will not work”. It was only when Sir Jeffrey Donaldson removed the First Minister, and then removed his Ministers, that government started to sit up, listen and take note. I hope and pray that we never have to get to a situation again where government will just turn their heads, look the other way and listen to only one side of the debate.

I commend the three speakers who have spoken before me. They have hit all the right notes and all the issues. But, in looking at the Bill, which changes the date by which the Assembly election must be called, we must be real about why we are here. We are here for one reason and one reason only: the Northern Ireland protocol—now renamed the Windsor Framework; I do not know whether it will eventually come out like that —creates an injustice that is very simple. In 300 areas of law, it subjects the people of Northern Ireland to laws by a foreign parliament.

It thus effects the partial disfranchisement of 1.9 million people. Does anyone in that House care that that is happening? We in Northern Ireland certainly do. We need to see that fixed. Until the end of 2020, it did not matter what part of the United Kingdom you resided in; we could all stand for election to make all the laws to which we were subject. From 1 January 2021, that changed. Today, when UK citizens in England, Wales and Scotland can stand for election to make all the laws to which they are subject, people living in Northern Ireland are afforded the right to stand for election to make only some of the laws to which we are subject. To date, around 700 laws have been imposed on us; that figure will continue to increase as the years go by.

I am not going to debate the Stormont brake, as it has been mentioned here before, but what does it do? It cements this injustice rather than removing it. In the first place, it applies to only some areas of imposed law, and so falls at the first hurdle. In the second instance, even if it can be made to work, which many doubt, it does not restore to the people of Northern Ireland the right to stand for election to make all the laws to which we are subject. It just gives us the demeaning second-class—perhaps third-class—right to stand for election to try to stop laws that have already been made for us by a foreign parliament applying to us. As such, it is a far more humiliating provision than Poynings’ law—noble Lords can look up what that was; I did but I will not go into it—which is now regarded as a matter of shame by many people in GB. At least under Poynings’ law, the Irish Privy Council had the power to initiate and define legislation in the first instance.

In this context, we must be clear that it would not make any difference whether or not the Government removed every check on the green lane; let us remember that that pertains only to consumer goods that have a confirmed address in Northern Ireland. The fundamental injustice that is the protocol would remain. If we are not to find ourselves back here again in a short while with a similar Bill, the Government need to take responsibility for their own citizens and explain to the European Union that our votes are not tradeable—we are not some sort of a commodity—and that the integrity of our political system depends on treating all citizens as ends in ourselves rather than as a means to an end.

The Good Friday/Belfast agreement—whatever term you wish to place on it—ended a 60-year period during which the Republic of Ireland refused to recognise the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. Its constitution claimed the north, as it would call it; however, as a result of the Belfast agreement, the Republic recognised the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom for the first time and ceased to claim “the north”, in return for the provision of a border poll in the event that polling suggested majority support for the break-up of the UK and Northern Ireland joining the Irish Republic. The agreement also contains cross-border provisions that then became necessary to facilitate a good working relationship in the context of recognising and respecting the reality of the newly recognised border. I emphasise that at no point does the Good Friday agreement say that there can be no customs border.

There is much more that I could say, but, before I sit down, I want to say this. A guarantee was given that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position would not change without a referendum and the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. I stand in your Lordships’ House today and contend that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position has changed, but we have had no opportunity to say anything. So do I now conclude that that guarantee in the Belfast agreement—that there will be a constitutional referendum—has now been pushed aside and is no longer relevant? I am fearful, and I would like the Government, the Opposition and everyone else from any party that sits in this House to declare where they are. Our constitutional position has been changed and we have had no say whatever. I will stop there.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the chairman of the Democratic Unionist Party, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and to listen to his words of real experience. I hope that some of that gets back to the Secretary of State.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I listened to a lot of the debate in the House of Commons earlier, and I was pretty horrified by the Secretary of State’s short and contemptuous speech of less than two minutes to introduce the Bill. Like others, I thought the shadow Secretary of State tried very hard to deal with some of the issues. It was as if he genuinely understood the issue and the problem. I did not necessarily agree with his final analysis, but at least he made an attempt. The Secretary of State has continued to show contempt for unionists, unionism and the very important issue of why we are here.

Let us face it; it is not about money. The DUP was perhaps rather short-sighted in getting the money aspect and the constitutional issue linked. But I agree with all those noble Lords who said that it is disgraceful that the Secretary of State, knowing that the money is there to solve and to end the public sector workers’ strike, has refused to do that and simply said no. He probably thought, “Great—all the trade unions will now blame the DUP”. Of course, from the headlines—even yesterday in one of the Northern Ireland papers—we have seen the trade unions fairly and squarely blaming the Secretary of State. So that has backfired very much on him.

The contempt shown today has been going on for some time. All the things it was said that the Windsor Framework and the protocol were going to solve have proven to be nothing: there has been no real change. Northern Ireland is in the UK customs union, they said—but then of course we have to apply the EU customs code. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, mentioned something that happened last week. It was very nice to see the noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor, moving the amendment, which clearly showed that, once again, a Bill that we were saying extended to Northern Ireland—most people would think, “Great, Northern Ireland is part of it”—in fact does not apply to Northern Ireland. That is quite disgraceful.

Again, there is an attempt to hide things with words and flannel, almost as if the Secretary of State feels that Northern Ireland people are not clever enough to understand and see through some of these words—for example, saying the framework removed the Irish Sea border. What nonsense. That contempt now continues with the fact that there is no transparency whatever in what is going on. Even very active members of the Democratic Unionist Party probably do not know what is in this so-called deal.

I expect noble Lords will be very relieved to hear that the Public Bill Office ruled out my two amendments because this is a very narrow Bill—probably designed very carefully to make sure that we could not extend the discussion too much. However, when it comes to discussing Northern Ireland, we all find ways of hammering home some of the issues and points that so many noble Lords have not engaged with. I was trying to table an absolutely crucial amendment that was a real indictment of how the Government behaved right at the beginning of all this when they changed, in a statutory instrument, the mechanism at the end of this year for the Northern Ireland Assembly to approve or disapprove of the protocol from cross-community consent to a straightforward majority. Nothing else gets through via a majority, but suddenly, somehow, the Government felt that it was fine to change that from cross-community consent.

I was also trying to move that we should absolutely ensure that, when there is something in writing—I do not even know whether there is anything in writing being discussed—it should be published within a very short period of time. If there is any draft legislation, we need it as early as possible. We need clear answers from the Government on how long they will continue with these kinds of discussions. We keep hearing, “There’s progress and we just need a little bit more”. I have no idea what that “little bit more” is and neither do the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland—but we should know more about what is happening and what the Government are offering. Deep down, we all know that they have not been negotiating with the European Union. The EU has not been involved and, therefore, it is very unlikely that anything in the Windsor Framework will change sufficiently to satisfy the DUP’s seven tests.

So let us not try to put the blame on the DUP or say that it created the problem that we are dealing with today. This problem was created squarely by a United Kingdom Conservative and Unionist Government who decided that Northern Ireland was expendable when it came to leaving the European Union. As I say every time, we had the same ballot paper and the same discussions; it was a United Kingdom vote, but Northern Ireland has not got Brexit.

Forget talking about the Act of Union—the question for me is whether, at the end of all this, Northern Ireland will still be under EU law for substantial parts of its trade agreements. Everything coming to this House and the other place now needs additional bits about not applying to Northern Ireland. The one that is quite disgraceful, which we will discuss in a few weeks’ time, is the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill. Hardly any live animal exports go from Great Britain to the European Union, while lots of live animal exports go from Northern Ireland and the Republic to the European Union. Yet the one area being left out is Northern Ireland, because the EU does not have the same law and we quite rightly want to keep the flow between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Government have now used the excuse that the WTO will not allow it. Why have they not tried even to challenge it? That is perhaps an issue for another day.

I want to say one more thing about how the Government have handled and are handling this issue. Without doubt, a former Secretary of State has been ringing round senior DUP people, senior unionists and others, making suggestions about how they might be rewarded or that they should definitely begin to think about giving in.

I think that is absolutely shocking from any ex-Secretary of State, who has probably been brought in by the current Secretary of State because they feel that he knows quite a lot about what is going on in Northern Ireland. Those kinds of threats in a nice way will not work with people. We have seen some of the things that have been done in the past by Secretaries of State who did not listen, and perhaps in the whole working of New Decade, New Approach, who handled it in a way that was seen to be more in support of the Irish Government than our own Government. That is something that I hope the Minister—who knows Northern Ireland very well—will take up.

Obviously, I condemn any threats to Sir Jeffrey, and any other threats. However, all of us who come from Northern Ireland or have relatives in Northern Ireland who are involved politically or are living there now have all had threats of different kinds. It is important that, while we condemn that, we do not think that it is just one person who is being threatened. Threats come in different ways and in different strengths and are taken very seriously by the PSNI.

Everyone says that this Bill is inevitable. It is not inevitable. The Government could have said that they were going to go along with what they have said, that if by such and such a date, the Assembly was not back, there would be an election. They do not want an election, because they know that the mandate that the unionists—the DUP, in particular, and the TUV—would get to stay out until the seven tests are met and until we are back as an absolutely integral part of the United Kingdom would be bigger. That is why they do not want an election, and that is why, in a sense, the Bill is something that could have been solved by simply having an election. However, I am afraid we may well be back in a few weeks’ time because a two-week gap is pretty ridiculous.

In the end, the Government will realise that from day one they have handled this extremely badly. They have not stood up to their commitment to be Conservatives and unionists. Probably very soon, we will see a new Government, who I hope might take a slightly different approach from the way they have been handling unionists—pro-British people in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introductory remarks. I have no doubt whatever in his strong unionist credentials. I must say that I do not have the same confidence, perhaps, in some of the other colleagues, but nevertheless, I have no doubt in his unionist credentials.

In preparation for this important debate, I attended the debate in the other House to listen to it. I found it very informative. I did indeed hear the words of my leader, the right honourable Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, in mentioning the threats that have been made against him. That is despicable, wherever that has come from or from whomever it has come. I and some other noble Lords in this House know exactly what it is to live under threats and to have those threats carried out. I had to be driven in an armoured police car for 25 years to carry out my duties as a Member of Parliament in the other place. Indeed, as noble Lords know, I received an actual bomb at my home on my 40th birthday and the house was shot up with over 50 bullets, just as the last action of the IRA, so that I would not be here. However, I thank God there is a greater power than the Provos, and that is why I am here. I thank God for his sovereignty and his providential care.

If anyone thinks that the threats across our community have finished, we know that dissidents are still threatening people. It is not only dissidents: outside Dungiven, we saw how those people went into the GAA place with their guns and threatened the people there. They had their weaponry with them, and they said they were the IRA. Therefore, those threats still go on.

I make this clear: irrespective of where the threats come, over the years those with principles have been willing to stand by them. We will not be threatened; we will not be bullied. Whether it be by the terrorists, government or anyone else, we will not be bullied into submission or move away from the principles that we believe in with all our hearts—I must lay that down right at the beginning.

Like my noble friend Lord Morrow, I attended an event on 17 January to commemorate the 32nd year since eight young men, who were travelling home from work, were brutally murdered on the Omagh-Cookstown road. For the past 32 years, I have stood with the families along that roadside. Come hail, snow or rain, we have stood there every year at the commemoration stone, even though others have sought to destroy it with bullets, hammers, sledgehammers and other things. The stone commemorates the lives of Gary Bleeks, Cecil Caldwell, Robert Dunseath, Oswald Gilchrist, David Harkness, Bobby Irons, Richard McConnell and Nigel McKee. We still remember them, and we will continue to remember their sacrifice and the pain that is still real in their loved ones’ hearts.

As I listened to the debate in the other place, I heard impassioned speeches from some, as well as some of the usual threats from others—not from the gun, but the usual political threats—should unionists not conform. In his introductory letter, the Secretary of State said that Northern Ireland has been without a fully functioning devolved Government since February 2022 and that the Government’s utmost priority remains restoring strong, stable and locally elected devolved institutions as soon as possible. Of course, the Government and Members of this House are fully aware of why my party pulled out of the Executive at Stormont. The Democratic Unionist Party did not create the impasse. Northern Ireland was plunged into constitutional uncertainty because of the actions of this Government in entering into an agreement with the European Union, over the heads of the people, that places Northern Ireland under laws from Europe that no representative of the people had any input in, influence over or ability to change. So much for democracy—and yet we are often reminded of what democracy would demand of us in going back into the Assembly.

What is being forced on the people of Northern Ireland under the protocol and the Windsor Framework is not democracy at work. How can we have 300 areas of law forced on the people of Northern Ireland when they have no power to change them? They have no representation in the place where those decisions are being made. In fact, they are being told to suck it up and take it—that is the way.

I am sad to say that the vast majority of Members in this House, when both the protocol Bill came through and the Windsor Framework was being debated, were willing to say, “Let’s have it”. In fact, when we debated the protocol, this House said that it could not be changed in any shape or form. Members sitting in this House said that the Democratic Unionist Party can blow in the wind and that this does not matter because the protocol will not, and cannot, be changed. We know that was not true; nevertheless, that was what was said. They were then forced into the position of saying that another agreement, the Windsor Framework, was the best thing: “Let’s forget about the protocol, let’s go with the Windsor Framework”. It involves a foreign jurisdiction making laws that we in Northern Ireland must adhere to, even though they are divergent from those that apply to the rest of the United Kingdom. We are supposed to be an equal part of the United Kingdom.

The Government said out of the other side of their mouth that they now wish to strengthen the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that they may bring forth legislation to do so. Did they really think we that we would believe them? Actions speak louder than words. We were told in this letter from the Secretary of State that a restored Executive would have access to a significant financial package, an extra £3.3 billion, to secure and transform Northern Ireland’s public services. That is a large amount, but when we realise that there is a major black hole in the finances at Stormont because Northern Ireland has been underfunded compared with the other devolved Administrations, and on top of that moneys have been allocated for the remuneration of public sector workers, we find that that substantial package is greatly depleted. Let nobody be under any misunderstanding: if they think that that amount of money will transform Northern Ireland’s public services, they are mistaken. There are major problems in the health service in Northern Ireland. There are major problems with education. Finances are needed across a vast area of Northern Ireland life, and yet we are told that this will solve the problem.

One of the most disgraceful and callous actions of the Secretary of State was using public sector workers who have not had a pay rise for three years and, as the shadow Secretary of State in the other House said in the debate, holding them hostages in this political game. We say that, yes, they were hostages: they were being held hostage and were pawns in his political game of trying to put the blame on the Democratic Unionist Party. Like every other Member in the other House, he has been told today, as he had already been told, to stop playing politics with teachers who provide an excellent education for our children under very difficult circumstances, stop using nurses and doctors who walk the wards of our hospitals day and night to aid our sick, stop abusing police officers who stand between us and those who terrorise the community. Secretary of State, release the money now that they are overdue. It was a deliberate decision by the Secretary of State to refuse to act. I trust that the noble Lord the Minister will take the message from across this House that that money should and must be released. Last week, my party colleagues personally put into the hand of the Chancellor of the Exchequer a demand that he release the money. I have been told that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is willing to release that money. Therefore, there is no excuse under the sun why the Secretary of State could not immediately order the payment that is due to those who keep our public services going in different spheres across the Province.

I noticed that the former Secretary of State, Julian Smith, said in the other House that what is being offered is a very good deal, that it is not perfect, but it is much better now. That is interesting, because he must have seen it. If he has seen it—and I am glad he has seen it —perhaps he could let some of the rest of us see it as well. He may have seen it, but if anyone thinks that anyone in Northern Ireland is going to take this Government at their word on trust, they are sadly mistaken. We have learned from the reality of the situation of life in Northern Ireland that we have to look at the detail and scrutinise the small print and then decisions can be made.

I notice that the Alliance Member for North Down once again threatens unionists that, if they do not give in, submit, surrender, they will be faced with Dublin’s involvement. It is sad that that Member comes from a very unionist constituency—there is a vast unionist constituency in North Down—yet, since he has come into the other place, he acts as a surrogate for Sinn Féin-speak. It is a total and absolute disgrace that he threatens unionists that if we do not bow to the diktat, we will have Dublin rule. I appeal to all unionists to stand united and strong as we face the onslaught of propaganda—and we will—and be sure not to give the enemies of unionism a bonus by turning in on ourselves. The old statement has always been: “United we stand, divided we fall”. Much has been heard about the Belfast agreement and its 25th anniversary, but we were told that the foundational principle of that agreement was cross-community consent: a majority of nationalists and a majority of unionists. It will be most interesting to see whether, whatever deal the Government finally offer unionism, a unionist Minister in the Assembly will be made to implement and enforce the Irish Sea border, as under the Windsor Framework, or has that been dealt with? Governments in the past have sold Northern Ireland short before; we are aware of that. Therefore, actions will speak louder than any pious words.

My Lords, as perhaps the unelected Member for North Down, it is appropriate that I follow my colleague after his remarks. This is a very net Bill, and I understand the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that this is a form of takeaway legislation. Those are valid criticisms, although I would also say that, whatever concerns we have about that, the appropriate places to discuss such matters are this House and the other House—in democratic institutions. That is why I join others from across the House in saying that any attempt to threaten or intimidate any Member from whatever source—towards whichever Member—is utterly wrong. Politics must always be decided in a democratic and peaceful manner, and had others applied that lesson over the last number of decades, we would be in a much better place in Northern Ireland.

The Bill itself is one that, given the circumstances, is, as my noble friend Lord Dodds said, effectively inevitable. As for whether an election takes place or not, I am fairly relaxed one way or the other. Perhaps, given the polls, my party would pick up an extra seat or two, but the reality is that an election would not really tell us anything different from what we already know. It would, broadly speaking, highlight where the divisions are. Similarly, we have a shift of dates, but, as have we always said, what is actually important is not the calendar but whether the conditions are met. If extra time is being provided, what the Government will do with the extra time will be the critical matter to be resolved.

In resolving the problems that lie before us, the solution does not lie in bullying or bribery through a financial package. For months, I and my colleagues in this House and the other Chamber have highlighted that Northern Ireland has been underfunded. That is not something that we have simply plucked out of the air, but the application of the Holtham formula, if it were applied to us on the same basis as Wales, suggests what the fiscal floor should be for Northern Ireland. Those figures have been worked up through the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council. We have made the case time and time again. I know that the Member for Belfast East in the other place has highlighted this.

It is useful that, finally, the Government have accepted the merits of this argument; but to tie this in with a belief that you get this only if you are good boys and accept whatever is thrown at you is unacceptable. The crassest example of this culminated last week when the Secretary of State clearly tried to use the issue of public sector pay as pressure to say, “Well, if only the DUP agreed to this, all this money would be available”. The reaction, not just across the Chamber but from the trade unions, was remarkably consistent. I saw on television a range of trade union leaders whom I know and who, frankly, would run a mile before voting for the DUP. In the advantage that we have of PR elections, they would probably vote on the ballot paper for every preference other than the DUP. Yet they consistently said, to a man and woman, “No: if the Secretary of State has the money, government should be releasing the money”. The attempt by the Secretary of State was not only ill-judged but entirely counterproductive.

What will resolve this is dealing with the constitutional issues of the Irish Sea border. From the start of this process, it has been consistently said over many decades that we will have stable government in Northern Ireland only when we have systems which both unionists and nationalists buy into. Back in 2017, the Irish Government and Irish nationalism took a very tough line on north-south trade. At one stage, to his discredit, the then and current Taoiseach raised the spectre of violence re-emerging across the border if any level of customs was put within that.

In many ways, Irish nationalism got what it wanted in terms of north-south trade, but we have not seen equality of treatment for the concerns raised by unionists. It is perfectly reasonable for the EU to say, “For trade coming into the European Union, there need to be arrangements that protect the single market”. That is perfectly understandable. What is not understandable or acceptable is to extend arrangements which interfere entirely with the internal workings of the United Kingdom. For example, goods that are never going to go within the EU are subject to a range of restrictions and pressures; democratic institutions are held hidebound because of the lack of democratic accountability. This is not simply a constitutional issue, but one which applies from a practical, economic point of view.

We have seen—and not just in a theoretical sense—some large companies already starting to divert trade away from movement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A question mark exists as to whether a company in Northern Ireland could produce something to the same standards as GB and sell it in its own hometown, for example. That is the level of restrictions in place. Removing that Irish Sea border is the key to unlocking this solution.

Unfortunately, I have heard at least one noble Lord—not one who has spoken in this debate—parroting the line of Sinn Féin that the real reason why the DUP is opposed to restoration at this stage is that we cannot accept a Deputy First Ministership. Well, if that is the case, call our bluff. Deal with the constitutional issues and we will either accept it or be exposed to the world. We do not seek supremacy. What we seek is equality with our fellow citizens across the United Kingdom and equality between unionism and nationalism. Only with that level of stability, of getting something that both unionists and nationalists can buy into, can we have long-term stability in Northern Ireland. We need something that is clear, transparent and does the job. Part of the problem with the Windsor Framework is not simply that it did not solve the problems created by the protocol but that it was so overspun that there is a lack of trust in anything the Government put forward. Therefore, we need solutions that can clearly be demonstrated to have solved the problem.

I hope that today, small though this piece of legislation is, can be the first step on a route map to resolving the problems—either that or we will be back in a few weeks’ time in Groundhog Day. The choice very much lies with the Government to be able to deliver on that.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow that speech by the noble Lord, Lord Weir, which was one of the most thoughtful that we have heard this afternoon.

I also agree with what the noble Lord said, and share his sentiments, about the threats to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. As he said, such threats, wherever they come from and whoever receives them, are never, ever acceptable.

I thank the Minister for his introduction to this short Bill and echo his sentiments in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Empey, back to his place. We always enjoy his contributions, and we missed them when he was not around so much recently.

It is now nearly two years since the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed—two years in which civil servants have had to take decisions which should have been taken by the politicians elected to deal with the very difficult situation that faces the people of Northern Ireland on so many issues. As other noble Lords have said, the health system is in crisis, and vital decisions are not being taken on education, the economy and future financing. The people of Northern Ireland are being badly let down and, as others have already said, last week’s public sector strikes showed all too clearly the level of frustration that people now feel. Ample time has been provided to reach a conclusion. There have now been so many occasions when we had been led to believe that a decision was close, and then it does not materialise.

However, from these Benches, we recognise the huge amount of work undertaken by the Government in the last two years and that some progress has been made. We welcomed the Windsor Framework, and we welcome the financial package announced before Christmas—in particular, the separate stabilisation fund to undo some of the harm created by cuts and to tackle backlogs, and the transformation fund to allow Northern Ireland to improve its public services.

However, financial stability alone will not address all the issues. Financial stability requires political, constitutional and institutional stability. In that context, from these Benches, we sincerely hope that this latest attempt and necessary extension of the timeframe will result in a return to a fully functioning Executive and Assembly. For that reason, we will not oppose the Bill. We can but hope that this latest attempt is successful and that this is indeed, as the Minister has said, the last such Bill of this kind.

However, if this latest extension to 8 February does not result in the outcome that we all hope to see, will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to return with a more comprehensive Bill, which would not be subject to this truncated timetable? As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, this really is not the way to do business. Will the Minister further confirm, were such a situation to arise—which we all hope it will not—that he would be willing to consider more extensive reforms at that point?

Northern Ireland has to be governed and, however good the civil servants are, it is unacceptable—including for the civil servants themselves—to continue with the current situation. The people of Northern Ireland have been incredibly patient, but, every day that these issues are parked and the can is kicked further down the road, more and more damage is being done. Northern Ireland deserves better.

My Lords, we have been here before—quite a few times. Even though that is the case, I and the Opposition support the Government in bringing the legislation forward. It will avoid an election, which I do not think anybody wants, and, because of the shortness of the period that the extension is covering—just two weeks—perhaps we are allowed some hint of optimism that something might be happening, and that there may indeed be a breakthrough or a deal before two weeks are up. We will not oppose the Government on this.

It has been an interesting debate. I certainly endorse the views of Members of the House about threats to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and others. It is entirely improper. I know from my time in Northern Ireland that those threats sometimes became real and ended in tragedy. I am sure that that will not be the case for Sir Jeffrey, but we nevertheless sympathise with him. He does not deserve that.

I also agree with the Minister that we welcome the noble Lord, Lord Empey, back after some months away. I very much welcomed his contribution. As always, it was wise, useful, important and came right to the heart of the matter. I also regret that my noble friend Lady Ritchie cannot be here as she has Covid, because she would have put a different point of view in this Chamber. We have heard, rightly, from the DUP, the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, a unionist point of view. I sympathise with the dilemma that unionism in Northern Ireland is in—of course I do. What I do not sympathise with is, however important that is—I will come to that in a second—it meaning that Northern Ireland should be without proper government and a proper democratic Assembly for two years now.

As a consequence of that, the civil servants are taking, or trying to take, major decisions that they cannot take; we have seen a strike of 100,000 people with 16 trade unions, which is, in effect, a general strike in Northern Ireland; we have seen a real collapse in public confidence in politics in Northern Ireland; and we have seen an apathy elsewhere in the United Kingdom about what is happening in Northern Ireland. If it were happening in Wales or Scotland—or, for that matter, Yorkshire—and a part of this United Kingdom was without government for two years and a proper decision could not be made, there would be an uproar. Instead, we hear, “Northern Ireland—it always happens there”. But it does not. The Good Friday agreement and subsequent agreements were all about avoiding this happening.

I was the direct rule Minister for five years in Northern Ireland. I did not like doing it, because it was not up to me as a Welsh Member of Parliament to take decisions about the future of men, women and children in Northern Ireland. The way it is going, we will drift back into that unless there is an agreement. We will drift to the general election, because that will put people off making decisions. That cannot be right.

I come back to the points that noble Members of the House from the DUP made about the protocol. I understand the dilemma that it puts unionism in, but that constitutional difficulty arose from the simple fact that Brexit occurred. Had there been no Brexit, there would not have been a protocol. Had there been no protocol, we would not be in the position that we are in at the moment, without democratic institutions in Northern Ireland.

We should always remember that there is another side to this argument: 56% of the people of Northern Ireland, a sizeable majority, voted to remain in the European Union. I know that that is not constitutionally proper because the United Kingdom is the member state. Nevertheless, if we are to talk about what the people of Northern Ireland thought about Brexit, it was a result of a constitutional and democratic referendum. It is not as simple as that, of course: if you break that down into how nationalists and unionists and those who belong to neither voted, it becomes more complicated. But my argument has always been that you can resolve, or hope to resolve, that issue simultaneously with the continuation of democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. Now, we are where we are and that has not happened, so we have to hope that there will be progress in the next two weeks.

I endorse the views of every Member of the House who has spoken on the pay settlement for public sector workers in Northern Ireland. They should be paid because it is the right thing to do, and they deserve that increase. Their cost of living should not be made worse because of this disagreement. Of course, they should be paid, and I hope that the Minister can give us a positive answer on that. It does not answer the dilemma of how Northern Ireland receives its money. There is a case, made convincingly in this Chamber over the past two years, that the Barnett formula as it operates is unfair to Northern Ireland. That must be remedied too, but let us remember that all these things can be more properly done if there is a working Executive and Assembly.

I do not know what is going to happen in the next two weeks. Let us hope that there is an agreement. If there is, or if there is not, when that Assembly returns, and when there is a working Executive, they should turn their minds to how to avoid this situation in the future. The Good Friday agreement has to be implemented in all its forms, but that includes a consensus among all Members of the Executive and Assembly, and all politicians in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee of the other place has suggested an independent review of the workings of the Good Friday agreement. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, will know, the agreement itself said that there could be reviews of the agreement after a quarter of a century. Instability has ensued over the last number of years—not just because of what the DUP has done, because Sinn Féin did exactly the same thing—so there has to be a prospect of stability and durability about democracy in Northern Ireland. I hope that is resolved by people in Northern Ireland themselves. Whatever the problems, differences or dilemmas, all of us in this Chamber hope that this will be resolved in the next fortnight.

My Lords, as always, I am incredibly grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate this afternoon and into this evening.

I, like a number of noble Lords, listened to the speech of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the other place this afternoon. It was a powerful contribution from the leader of the DUP, and I supported much of what he said, particularly in respect of those who—as my noble friend Lord Empey said—have tried to frustrate progress in Northern Ireland over many years and have delivered nothing. I was also moved by his comments about the threats and intimidation that he has received. I know I speak for all Members of this House when we pass on our support for him and wish him well. It was one of the Mitchell principles back in the 1990s that politicians in Northern Ireland should pursue their objectives exclusively by peaceful and democratic means. That is as sound a principle today as it was then and should be for the future.

With the leave of the House, I will try to respond to a number of the points that have been made. Inevitably, a number of speeches this afternoon strayed outside the scope of the Bill. Perhaps that was inevitable, given it has only one main clause and one main purpose, which is to move a date.

I am pleased that, at least, there appears to be broad agreement on the substance of the Bill, and I am particularly grateful to the opposition parties for agreeing to its expedited passage through this House and the other place. Our priority must be the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, and this is the issue on which we are completely focused. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, on that.

We all want to see progress within the next fortnight. As was said during the debate in the other place this afternoon, there is no deal at the moment. We hope there will be one within the space of time that this legislation provides. I say in response to a number of noble Lords who were looking for more detail that should there be a deal it will be brought before Parliament, and both Houses will have the opportunity to carefully scrutinise the details or, as my Democratic Unionist Party colleagues normally put it, the fine print. We are not there yet, and the House contains enough seasoned negotiators in Northern Ireland politics to recognise that it would be unwise, even if I were able, to go into detail at this stage about any discussions that might be taking place. In response to my noble friend Lord Empey on the rationale for the Bill, suffice it to say that we believe the next fortnight provides an optimum period for the possibility of reaching an agreement. That is where we are focused.

I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, that we will continue to prepare for all eventualities, and will update the House if it has not proven possible to restore the Executive by the date which is set out in the legislation, 8 February. She asked whether we would bring forward more substantial legislation. We are currently looking at all eventualities, but if new legislation comes forward, Parliament will have the opportunity to examine it carefully.

The noble Baroness mentioned the possibility of further reform, and my noble friend also touched on reforms to the institutions. The approach of the Government to this has been consistent over a number of years, and we will always look at sensible suggestions for reform. I agree with those who suggested that the Belfast agreement was never intended to be set in tablets of stone. It has already evolved, and there were changes. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, refers to the Belfast agreement as amended by St Andrews, as there were significant changes in the St Andrews agreement, and changes in the Stormont House agreement, and so on. The test for any reforms has to be that they will command widespread support and consent across the community, and they must be consistent with the underlying and enduring principles of the Belfast agreement.

Much of the debate focused on the reasons why devolved government is not currently in place in Northern Ireland, and the principal one is the DUP’s current opposition to the provisions of the Windsor Framework. If noble Lords will forgive me, and in the interests of time, I do not intend to have a lengthy debate about the Windsor Framework, which has been debated in this House on many occasions. Suffice to say, the Government are well aware of the concerns of the Democratic Unionist Party—it would be strange if we were not given the number of times they have been expressed. We are looking at what we can do to clarify any outstanding points there might be, recognising that the substantive negotiations came to an end shortly before Christmas. We are, and always have been, willing to clarify certain points that might arise.

Another key theme of this afternoon was the union. I set out my own rock-solid support for the union at the beginning of my opening speech. I will part company slightly with some of my colleagues behind me in respect of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. There are two constitutional outcomes provided for in the 1998 agreement, which are reflected in the Northern Ireland Act 1998: Northern Ireland is either part of the United Kingdom, or part of a united Ireland. I am very sure that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of this United Kingdom, something I wish never to see change.

The noble Baroness, Lady Foster—she is my friend—referred to the concept of the all-Ireland economy. I entirely agree with her, and the Government have made it clear, that there are two economies on the island of Ireland. One of those, the Northern Ireland economy, is an integral part of the world’s sixth-largest economy, from which Northern Ireland gains considerable strength and security. We should never forget that fact.

I hear what has been said about public sector pay; there appears to be unanimity among most of the parties in the House on this issue. I see the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, confirming that from his sedentary position. Let me reiterate, as I did at the outset, that the £3.3 billion package is very much on the table for an incoming Administration in Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, mentioned money for tackling current pressures. She will be aware that the issue of the block grant is, rightly, one for negotiation between His Majesty’s Treasury and an incoming Northern Ireland Executive, but I will take back her comments and may write to her in more detail on that subject.

In conclusion, I hope shortly to be in a position where we have the return of devolved government in Northern Ireland and no longer need to have these rather novel pieces of legislation. I agree with my noble friend that it is very unsatisfactory. All I would say is that it is certainly not the first time we have introduced novel and expedited legislation in Northern Ireland. I look forward to a time when any Northern Ireland legislation is dealt with in a proper and considered way while most of the decisions are taken, rightly, in the Assembly, by local politicians in that Assembly answerable to their electorate. On that note, I very much hope that we can make some progress in the next two weeks, before 8 February, as set out in the legislation.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

My Lords, we will now have a short period to allow Members to table amendments. Members wishing to table amendments should do so by 6.43 pm, so in 30 minutes, and should contact the Public Bill Office. We will now have a repeat of an Urgent Question and then a short adjournment at the end of the tabling period. When we return, if there are no amendments, we will take the remaining stages of the Bill formally and then move straight to Committee on the Victims and Prisoners Bill.