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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill

Volume 826: debated on Monday 5 December 2022


Clause 1: Extension of period for making Ministerial appointments by six weeks

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2: Power to extend period for making Ministerial appointments by a further six weeks

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 2, page 1, line 15, leave out “19 January 2023” and insert “a date set out in regulations by the Secretary of State”

Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment gives the Secretary of State discretion to set a later deadline for the filling of Ministerial offices.

My Lords, I rise to move the amendment in my name. My noble friend Lady Suttie would have been here, but she is recovering from Covid, so the Committee is stuck with me for the duration. I am glad to say that she is well on the way to recovery.

This amendment was tabled by our Alliance Party colleague in the other place. The feeling, which has been expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Murphy and Lord Godson, is that the timescale is tight to the point of being unrealistic. If the Minister honestly believes that we could get a scenario where, let us be clear, the DUP would be willing to engage and come back because there was sufficient progress by 19 January, nobody would be more pleased than me, these Benches and probably the whole House, but if not, it will mean that the Government have to come back and introduce another Bill. I genuinely think that it would be helpful for the Government if they gave themselves the space not to have to do that.

The only other thing we want to say is that while all this is going on, whether now or subsequent to 19 January, what information will the Government make available in the public domain on decisions that have been taken in Northern Ireland by civil servants for people to be aware of them? What information are the Government prepared to share in broad terms about negotiations that may be taking place and whether all-party talks could be initiated?

The purpose of this amendment is to create the space for the Government to get where we all want them to go on the basis that the deadline seems unrealistically tight. I beg to move.

My Lords, I understand the reasoning behind this amendment. We touched on it in the debate a couple of hours ago with regard to the deadline. It is very tight. I cannot honestly think we will actually achieve much between now and then because of the Christmas period.

I hope we will, but one of the problems that these negotiations face is that there is more than one government department dealing with them. If the Foreign Secretary and his team are dealing with it, then the Northern Ireland Secretary and his team are dealing with it from only a secondary point of view, whereas in reality they are equally important. Could the Minister enlighten us not only in response to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, about the deadline, but about the nature—not the detail—of the negotiations? If we have a Foreign Office team looking at the protocol here and the Northern Ireland Office team looking at the situation in Northern Ireland there, do they meet? Do they talk to each other? Are they in direct communication with each other about the implications in those negotiations?

As I have said in the House many times, my view is that, in sovereign nation terms, the NIO and the Irish Government know more about Northern Ireland than any single country in the European Union, and it is important that that sort of detail is brought through during the course of negotiations. So I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know the state of negotiations, how his department liaises with the Foreign Office on these matters and some indication about timescale.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie. I echo what he said about his colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. She texted me this morning; she is apparently on the mend and we hope to see her back in her place very soon.

The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, which was also discussed in the other place, would, of course, remove the end of the second six-week extension to the Executive formation period. As the noble Lord set out, this would essentially amount to an indefinite extension. As my honourable friend the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office said in the other place, and as I said at Second Reading in the wind-up, it is not and never has been the intention of this legislation to create an indefinite or undefined extension period for Executive formation. In our view, that would be neither democratic nor fair.

The House will recall that, earlier this year, Parliament passed the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022, which I took through this House. That legislation amended the period for forming an Executive after an Assembly election as applied by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Given the Government’s desire to allow space for progress in talks with the European Union on the protocol, this Bill creates a short, straightforward and defined extension to that Executive formation period, which builds on the defined six-week period set out in the Act to which I have just referred. In our view, we cannot simply dispense with that legislation at the earliest possible opportunity; it is legislation that, I remind the House, was contained in commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach document of January 2020.

I am deeply aware that the previous political impasse in Northern Ireland dragged on for three years. I have previously in your Lordships’ House described that period as a particularly frustrating time in my life—something that is shared by a number of colleagues who are sitting behind me on the Democratic Unionist Party Benches and, indeed, by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. We are determined that that period, which dragged on for three years, cannot happen again. Indeed, it is what the provisions of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act and New Decade, New Approach sought to prevent. We are clear that, given the present challenges, Northern Ireland needs locally elected and accountable Ministers as soon as possible. As we have heard throughout proceedings today, the measures in this Bill are a temporary stopgap, and we cannot allow a situation where that remains indefinitely the case.

Regarding the noble Lord’s other points, I will reflect on what he said. Some of the issues to which he and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, referred are not directly matters for me. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, that, of course, the Northern Ireland Office liaises with the Foreign Office. As we promised to do in Committee on the protocol Bill, I will take away the comments of both noble Lords to see if there is a way that we can give more information to your Lordships’ House as the discussions proceed. On that basis, I would urge the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, to withdraw his amendment.

I thank the Minister for that response. I understand it, and I genuinely wish him well: that is a very tight timescale and I hope he can be successful. I repeat that I will be surprised if we are not back here before the end of January, but I appreciate his response, particularly about trying to keep us informed. I know he said that in good faith, and we look forward to hearing how he might be able to do that. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed.

Clauses 3 to 15 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.