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Northern Ireland

Volume 818: debated on Monday 7 February 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to restore the Northern Ireland Executive following the resignation of the First Minister on 4th February.

My Lords, the resignation of the First Minister of Northern Ireland is deeply disappointing. The Secretary of State has spoken to the Northern Ireland party leaders and the Irish Government to urge a return to stable devolved government and ensure the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. We recognise the problems caused by the Northern Ireland protocol and will continue our intensive talks with the EU to resolve these.

My Lords, my noble friend will know that, during the passage of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill, which is currently before Parliament, it was described as a Bill to strengthen and safeguard the institutions. Actually, it has now facilitated those who are prepared to abuse the situation. Can my noble friend tell us what the Secretary of State has done to avoid this stunt, which was widely anticipated for months, in advance of the elections? Do Her Majesty’s Government intend to accede to Sinn Féin demands to bring forward the date of the Assembly elections?

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend. Unfortunately, I do not share his characterisation of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill, which I believe will lead to greater resilience and stability for decision-making within Northern Ireland. Over the last few days, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been engaging intensively and has had a number of discussions with party leaders, Members of Parliament, Members of the Assembly and the Irish Government in order to seek a resolution of the issues that have led to the collapse of the Assembly. In particular, the Government are deeply committed to resolving the issues around the implementation of the protocol, which have caused so much damage across Northern Ireland. The legislation to which my noble friend referred should, I hope, complete its passage in the other place this evening, and we are working very hard to bring Royal Assent forward for that legislation as quickly as possible. My noble friend will be aware that the election is due to be on 5 May.

My Lords, I thank the Lord Speaker for granting this PNQ; given how important this issue is, we might have expected the Government to make a Statement. I share the view that the First Minister’s resignation is disheartening. We continue to urge the DUP to take up its place in the Executive for the remainder of this mandate. There are immediate challenges to be faced. An official public apology to the victims of historical institutional abuse was due to be delivered by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on 11 March. What urgent conversations has the Secretary of State had with the victims, the Northern Ireland parties and the Executive Office to ensure that these victims are not let down yet again? Will the Government now take responsibility for their protocol, which the Prime Minister negotiated and put in place? What practical, long-term solutions are the Government looking at? Ministers must now ensure that Northern Irish communities and businesses have a voice in any future negotiations. I hope the Minister will tell us how this will be done.

I assure the noble Lord that discussions about the protocol have been taking place with the Northern Ireland Executive. I chaired a meeting of the Northern Ireland protocol contact group with the First and Deputy First Ministers only last week, which I think was the seventh such meeting that has taken place. There has been engagement between the Foreign Secretary and the leaders of the Northern Ireland Executive, as well as with the Secretary of State. There has been a lot of discussion around these issues. Regarding long-term solutions, the noble Lord will be aware that the Government produced their Command Paper last July. This set out some practical solutions to the issues of the protocol. The Foreign Secretary has had a number of meetings with Maroš Šefčovič. They had two telephone calls recently—one was supposed to be a meeting but, because of Covid isolation, it had to be done on the telephone. They are due to meet again this week, so the Government are taking these matters very seriously. When I was a special adviser in Northern Ireland, I did quite a lot of work on the issue of victims of historical institutional abuse. I am aware of its importance, but it is primarily a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive to take forward.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the British Government negotiated an unworkable deal? This allows the European court—which now has no British judge sitting on it—to apply laws made in Brussels, where the UK no longer has representation. The Minister referred to negotiations. These have been dragging on and on. When will the Foreign Secretary remove these anomalies and act with some flexibility to find solutions to the problem now facing the Northern Ireland Government? This is the cause of the crisis that has just erupted.

The noble Lord might be aware that, more than two years ago, when the protocol was being negotiated, I asked questions from the Back Benches. Those are a matter of record. Rather than dwelling on how we got into this situation, I would rather focus on how we get out of it. As I said in my earlier answer, the Government are working intensively with Vice-President Šefčovič to try to find a way forward. The noble Lord will know that there is a meeting of the EU-UK joint committee pencilled in for later this month.

My Lords, is it not right that, under the protocol, the tariffs on imports into Northern Ireland are a devolved matter?

My Lords, critical to dealing with the post-pandemic recovery, addressing health waiting lists and making provisions for economic stability in Northern Ireland is the need to set a three-year budget and to have it ring-fenced, which requires executive decision-making and approval. The Minister will know that this cannot happen without an Executive. How will the Government—working with the Irish Government—ensure that there is immediate restoration of the Executive, and that the DUP will be told to stop their stunts and get on with the work of serving the people of Northern Ireland? What discussions did the Government have with the DUP prior to this happening last week?

I assure the noble Baroness that the Government have been having discussions—not just with one party but with parties across the Northern Ireland Executive—in the run-up to the decision of the former First Minister last week and subsequently. She raises a very important point about the budget and, of course, one of the things that has bedevilled Northern Ireland in recent years has been the single-year budgets rather than the much longer three or four-year spending reviews that we are used to here. So far as the current situation is concerned, my understanding is that the Finance Minister can bring to the Assembly a budget for the next financial year, but she is absolutely right that it is not possible now to do a three-year budget, which would have to be a priority for an incoming Executive after the election.

My Lords, the Minister is surely aware that the Northern Ireland protocol is not consistent with the Belfast agreement, the principle of consent or Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom. It does not have the support of one unionist party in Northern Ireland. The Government have been given ample warning of what was going to happen and now they must deal with the problem. I do not mean tinkering with the protocol—it has to go.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, raises a number of very important points, many of which are subject to a legal case currently before the Court of Appeal in Belfast, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail on a number of his points. He referred to Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is very much a part of the United Kingdom, something which this Government strongly support and I personally passionately support.

My Lords, when will the Government prioritise getting a so-called SPS or veterinary agreement, which would remove a lot of the checks on food and agricultural products crossing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland? Are they not doing so because they want to keep open the option of allowing hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washed chickens into this country?

Without commenting on detail, I say that it will not surprise the noble Baroness that these matters are currently being discussed between the Foreign Secretary and the European Commission. She will be aware that the Government put forward a number of proposals in the Command Paper last year, but I urge her to await the outcome of the negotiations.

My Lords, my party leader has continually reminded the Government of promises made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK’s internal market. The commitment was the very basis on which the Democratic Unionist Party re-entered the Executive in 2020. Regrettably, to date, this commitment has not been honoured by Her Majesty’s Government. Does the Minister agree that the Government now need to act to remove the Northern Ireland protocol, or indeed trigger Article 16?

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, will be aware—as I have said on a number of occasions—that the Government are strongly committed to remedying the defects in both the construction and the implementation of the protocol, which has led to a distortion of trade, disadvantaged consumers, led to societal problems and placed burdens on business, all of which is deeply regrettable. Yes, he has my assurance that we are committed to making progress and remedying the most obvious defects that we face.

My Lords, I remind the Minister, although he probably does not need reminding, that the last time Stormont was suspended it was down for three years, and the time before it was down for five years. I am sure he agrees that this is a very serious situation. It is critical that the Government accelerate the negotiations—I am sure there is a deal to be done—and work with the parties to get Stormont operating properly as soon as possible.

I am very grateful to the former Secretary of State for reminding me of three very painful and frustrating years of my life after the Assembly and Executive were last in a state of flux and unable to function. It is important to remind the House at this stage that the First and Deputy First Ministers have ceased to hold office, but individual Ministers remain in office and the Assembly is still meeting. I think there are something like 28 pieces of legislation currently before the Assembly, and 15 sitting days before it is supposed to rise for the election in which to try to progress a number of them.

If the legislation to which I referred earlier is to receive royal assent shortly, there will be a period after the next election when Ministers can remain in place while an Executive is formed. So the situation is not—or hopefully will not be—exactly akin to that in which we find ourselves after 2017 and the noble Lord found after the Assembly fell in 2002. There are some important differences, but I entirely take his point about the urgency to get on with things.

My Lords, the Secretary of State was due to travel to Washington tomorrow on what sounded like a very important trip. I wondered whether this trip was still going ahead.

Yes, my Lords, it is. I know from my experience of having engaged with Irish America over the years—very intensively, I should add—of the importance of American voices in helping to promote and maintain political stability within Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has a number of very important meetings with US government officials and Congressmen, who I believe can be very influential in these matters.

My Lords, many of us in your Lordships’ House have been warning for some time of the fundamental incompatibility between the protocol, the institutions and the Belfast agreement. Will the Minister make it clear to our Foreign Secretary—who, I think, is trying her very best in very difficult circumstances—that this incompatibility can be dealt with, and we can get the institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland, only when the protocol goes?

The noble Baroness again takes us into the territory of the court case in which she is involved regarding compatibility with the Belfast agreement, on which the Government have defended their position in court. As I hope I have stressed from the Dispatch Box over the past few minutes, the Government remain deeply committed to remedying the defects which are apparent in both the construction and implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol—absolutely.