My Lords, as I and many other noble Lords have made clear on numerous occasions, it is a matter of great regret that we have been debating the contents of this Bill in your Lordships’ House. It would have been far preferable had the Bill been taken forward by the Northern Ireland Executive in the Northern Ireland Assembly, as was originally intended, but that plainly has not happened, which is why we have had to make progress on the important New Decade, New Approach commitments that the Bill delivers within this Parliament.
Since the Bill’s introduction into your Lordships’ House there has been neither a functioning Executive nor an Assembly, and that remains the case. It has therefore not been possible for the Government to seek a legislative consent Motion. My officials have been engaging with counterparts in the Northern Ireland Civil Service throughout the Bill’s passage and will continue to do so. I think I speak for the whole House when I say I hope that, by the time the Bill leaves the other place, such consent will have been given by a restored Executive and Assembly.
My Lords, as we come to the end of the passage of the Bill through your Lordships’ House, I want to place on record my gratitude to all noble Lords who have participated in our debates upon it. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, who speaks with great wisdom as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister who helped negotiate the Belfast agreement in 1998, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for their support for the Bill and their constructive and pragmatic engagement during its passage.
I thank all noble Lords from Northern Ireland for their detailed and insightful contributions. While some of them might not like every aspect of the Bill, and I am sure that their colleagues in the other place will continue to push the Government in a number of areas, I appreciate the collaborative and open manner with which they have engaged with me and put forward their arguments.
It will come as no surprise to many that I found the most enjoyable aspect of the Bill’s passage the debate on the Castlereagh Foundation, the establishment of which the Bill will enable. It provided us with an opportunity in Committee and on Report to discuss the great contribution that Viscount Castlereagh made to Irish, British and European history, not least as the architect of the Act of Union and a key figure in defeating the Bonapartist tyranny in the early part of the 19th century. In doing so, we have benefited immensely from the expert historical knowledge and wisdom of my noble friend Lord Lexden, who I see in his place and to whom I am especially grateful and have been ever since he took the bold decision to employ me 35 years ago.
Finally, I place on record my thanks to my noble friend Lord Younger, my officials from the Northern Ireland Office, the Whips’ Office and all those involved in the Bill’s drafting for their hard work and support. The aim of the legislation is to implement important commitments in New Decade, New Approach, which, noble Lords will recall, led to the restoration of devolved government in January 2020. In remaining faithful to New Decade, New Approach, I am pleased that the Government were able to table amendments to the Bill and to make commitments in response to the debates we had.
As a result, I believe that the Bill is in a better state thanks to your Lordships’ scrutiny. Once again, this demonstrates the value of your Lordships’ House in examining legislation in detail. It is now over to the other place and, I sincerely hope, to a reconstituted Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, to continue and complete the work we have started in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I echo the view of the Minister in the sense that the debates have been very good, informative and useful. They have also been informed from the point of view of many contributions from Members of your Lordships’ House from Northern Ireland, which enhanced the quality of the debate considerably. I thank the Minister for the very civilised way he handled this Bill at Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, and all Members of your Lordships’ House who took part.
The Minister rightly says that the Bill is based on New Decade, New Approach, which was an all-party agreement some years ago in Northern Ireland, and the Bill faithfully sticks to that agreement. There have been some improvements and, again, I am so glad that the Minister and the Government were able to accept those changes; for example, to how the Secretary of State’s step-in powers would be dealt with by Parliament. There were also changes, such as the Castlereagh Foundation, which originally was not in the Bill, and in the title of the commissioner for Ulster Scots to add the Ulster-British tradition. These came about because we had a good debate, and because these were sensible things to do.
I wish the Bill well. It is founded on the principles of the Good Friday agreement of equality, of ensuring that people have respect for each other, and of parity of esteem—which came up many times in debate. There is still an opportunity in the House of Commons for further changes to be made, so long as they are in step with the agreements made in Belfast. I wish it well on its legislative journey.
My Lords, I too thank the Minister and his Bill team for the constructive and positive way in which they have engaged with noble Lords on the Bill. I also thank my colleague Elizabeth Plummer in the Lib Dem Whips’ Office for her constant support and knowledge as somebody from Northern Ireland.
The Minister sets an extremely positive example—perhaps the gold standard—with his willingness to listen and make changes, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has said. It would be deeply welcome if a similarly constructive and listening approach were to be used for the two other Bills that have not yet reached your Lordships’ House: the legacy Bill and the Northern Ireland protocol Bill. It is unlikely, perhaps, but one can live in hope.
I have two final brief points, if I may. I believe that everyone, including the Minister, has agreed at various stages of the Bill that it would have been much preferred if the Northern Ireland Assembly had been dealing with this Bill. The Northern Ireland Assembly, with all its relevant experience and expertise in being much closer than many of us are here, would have been much better placed to deal with this legislation.
During the slightly unusual and turbulent period that we are going through, I none the less hope that the new Northern Ireland Secretary will allow the Minister to use his many years of experience to leave no stone unturned in helping to bring back a functioning Executive and Assembly as soon as possible. It is in no one’s interest, least of all the people of Northern Ireland, for this current stalemate to continue.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for all his hard work and dedication during the passage of the Bill. I am pleased that he and the Government have accepted the amendments to the title of the Ulster Scots/Ulster British commissioner and acknowledged the important role that the Castlereagh Foundation plays in research and exploring the shifting patterns of social identity in Northern Ireland.
Without wishing to add to the Minister’s workload over the Summer Recess, I ask him whether he would consider looking at two important issues in the Bill, as it makes its way to the other place. First, I believe that the proposal for the Secretary of State to overrule the Northern Ireland Assembly sets a dangerous precedent. Secondly, it needs to be made clear that, although the two commissioners have different functions, they should have equal weight in those functions so that the unionist community can be given an equal opportunity to complain through its commissioners across the spectrum of their function. I hope that these points will be given full consideration when the Bill reaches the other place. I thank the Minister again for all of his advice and work.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said, we are grateful to the Minister. A Minister being prepared to be flexible and listen to people makes a difference. But I gently correct the noble Lord, Lord Murphy: the Bill and the agreement did not have all-party support. My party does not support New Decade, New Approach and never did, and we consequently never supported this legislation. Unfortunately, it will ultimately become a grievance factor for people. Certainly, it should have been dealt with not here but in Stormont. The Assembly is now heading towards six months without a functioning Government, in unprecedented economic circumstances —and winter, when things will bite even harder, is approaching. As each day passes, it is a matter of great regret that we find ourselves in this position.
This is no reflection on the Minister or his team; it is merely a fact. New Decade, New Approach, which led to the restoration of the Executive, was flawed anyway. But we have to move on and see how we can concentrate minds and get the institutions re-established so that we can help to protect as many people in the community as possible from the surge in prices and the suffering that I have no doubt will emerge in the winter. Sadly, we are still in this limbo.
Could the Minister ask his right honourable friends in his department to step up activity to ensure that we can get the institutions replaced? No process whatever seems to be taking place—yet huge national issues are at stake. I thank the Minister for his flexibility, but I assure him that we have a long way to go.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and his team for introducing the Bill. I also thank my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, his team on the Front Bench and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Obviously, as an Irish language enthusiast and as someone who studied it up to O-level and attended the Gaeltacht on several occasions, I want to see the Bill implemented as quickly as possible. For me, it represents parity of esteem and the necessary equality of opportunity.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that the Bill should have been dealt with by the Northern Ireland Executive presenting it to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is vital that those institutions, and all the institutions of the Good Friday agreement, are up and running as quickly as possible. I appeal to those preventing this taking place to act immediately to put the Assembly, the Executive and the other institutions in place, because that will be in the best interest of the people of Northern Ireland, who are suffering from high inflation and high energy and food prices.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, that the other Bills need to be resolved: the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and the legacy Bill. Several outstanding issues need to be resolved, but they need to be resolved on an equitable basis, based on equality and parity of esteem.
Finally, I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet Conradh na Gaeilge, the Irish language organisation in Northern Ireland and hope that can take place shortly, so that they can discuss the need for an Irish language strategy to put in the Bill, perhaps in its passage through the other place, and a time limit on the Secretary of State’s powers. The members of that organisation can embody those issues much better through their articulation as people who are enthusiasts. I do not make that by way of a political point—they are Irish language speakers in the truest sense of the word. Once again, I thank the Minister.
Bill passed and sent to the Commons.