My Lords, I rise to thank the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, on behalf of all the Northern Irish Peers for the way in which he has handled this Bill and for the excellent degree of consultation which we have all been afforded by him. I think I can say on behalf of all the Northern Irish Peers with a special interest in this problem that we are very grateful.
I shall make one comment and ask the Minister for his view. We are in the middle of an election in Northern Ireland. During the campaign, there has been some discussion of the reserved issues that are being dealt with in this House, particularly electoral law. When politicians have been criticised by the public, they have been saying that it is Westminster’s responsibility. Does the Minister agree that our habit here—this Bill is an example of it—is to operate on the basis of an understanding that exists in Stormont, as, for example, in the Stormont House agreement? We debate things, we put forward ideas that we think might improve things a little, but fundamentally this Parliament does not see its way to upsetting understandings that exist in Belfast. That is the way that we have tried to proceed to strengthen the peace process. I find it a little difficult that, when members of the public have doubts about some aspects of this legislation, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly say it is our fault. We tend to be following the understandings that we believe they have. Will the Minister comment on that? I thank him again for all his help.
I rise to make one or two comments on behalf of myself and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who cannot be in his place today.
The Minister responded with skill and understanding to the points that were raised in our debates on Second Reading and in Committee, but he will be aware that the absence of further amendments on Report and at Third Reading does not indicate total contentment with all aspects of the Bill. There seemed no likelihood that the Government would accept any amendment whatever. As my noble friend Lord Empey pointed out, repeating an important comment he made in relation to the Scotland Act, it was as if we were presented with a treaty for formal acceptance and ratification. Agreements made between the Government and the devolved Administrations ought not to come before Parliament in this way, excluding any possibility of serious change. There is a fundamental constitutional issue here, which we need to bear in mind.
Finally, our discussions and those in the other place identified a number of areas where improvements were desirable. One was the pledge of office to be made by Ministers and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, yet the Bill will pass into law without providing any sanction if the pledge is breached. Northern Ireland should reap considerable benefits from this Bill, but it could perhaps have provided even more effectively than it does for the continued progress in the Province that we all want so fervently.
My Lords, I shall respond briefly to what has been said. In moving that the Bill do now pass, I thank all noble Lords from across the Chamber who have been involved in its passage through this House, including the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and my noble friend Lord Lexden. I thank them for their kind words. I think that it is fair to say while the contributions on this Bill may have been less numerous than on others, their quality has more than made up for that. Indeed, how could it be otherwise when this House benefits from the wisdom and experience of noble Lords who have played such important and direct roles over the years in putting Northern Ireland on a path of peace, progress and prosperity?
I note what my noble friend Lord Lexden said. To address directly the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, the Bill indeed gives effect to agreements that have been reached by the Northern Ireland parties. It is very much a theme that we have devolved institutions and we must ensure that those institutions develop and take on their responsibilities.
As noble Lords are aware, we have proceeded with the Bill faster than is usual. That was to ensure that the enhanced pledge of office and new undertakings for Members of the Assembly, as well as the extension of the time available for ministerial appointments, would be in place for the Assembly’s return after next week’s elections. I particularly thank Members on the Front Bench opposite for their support with this expedited timetable. I also take this opportunity to put on record my appreciation of the officials from the Northern Ireland Office who have supported me during the passage of the Bill and at the various briefings that we have held.
My noble friend Lord Lexden raised the issue of the pledge of office and the undertakings given by Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I assure the House that is it is absolutely the case that on the issue of sanctions and any breaches of the undertaking, the Government will give every encouragement to the new Executive and the new Assembly, once formed, to give this very careful consideration.
I recognise that there are many issues arising from the Stormont House and fresh start agreements that are not in the Bill, and I am sure that on future occasions we will return to many of the issues that have been raised across the House by noble Lords on how best to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. But I hope that the House will agree that the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill, while not providing all the answers, maintains the momentum achieved by the fresh start agreement, and marks another significant step forward in tackling the malign threat of paramilitary activity and securing the more peaceful, stable and prosperous future for Northern Ireland that we all want to see.