‘(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 16A (Appointment of First Minister, deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland Ministers following Assembly election), in subsection 4, omit the words “of the largest political designation”.
(3) For subsection (5) of that section, substitute—
“(5) The nominating officer of the second largest political party shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.”
(4) In section 16(B) (Vacancies in the office of First Minister or deputy First Minister), in subsection (4), omit the words “of the largest political designation”.
(5) For subsection (5) of that section, substitute—
“(5) The nominating officer of the second largest political party shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.”
(6) In section 16C (sections 16A and 16B: supplementary), omit subsection (6).’—(Stephen Farry.)
This new clause provides that the deputy First Minister can come from the second largest political party without prescribing that the post be filled by a member from the second largest designation.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Appointment of Joint First Ministers—
‘(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection 16A (appointment of Ministers following Assembly election), leave out subsections (4) to (7) and subsection (9), and insert after subsection (3)—
“(3ZA) Each candidate for the office of Joint First Ministers must stand for election jointly with a candidate for the other office.
(3ZB) Two candidates standing jointly shall not be elected to the two offices without support of two thirds of members present and voting.
(3ZC) The Joint First Ministers—
(a) shall not take up office until each of them has affirmed the terms of the pledge of office; and
(b) subject to the provisions of this Part, shall hold office until the conclusion of the next election for First Ministers.”
(3) In subsection (3)(a) the reference to “subsections (4) to (7)” is replaced by a reference to “subsections (3ZA) to (3ZC)”.
(4) Any reference in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to the First Minister or deputy First Minister is to be taken as a reference to the Joint First Ministers.’
This new clause provides for the joint election of First Ministers, and further prescribes a weighted majority vote in the Assembly, without the use of designations, for this purpose.
New clause 3—First Minister and deputy First Minister to be referred to as Joint First Ministers—
‘The First Minister and deputy First Minister elected under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are to be referred to as Joint First Ministers, and all references in that Act (other than to their election) to the First Minister and deputy First Minister are to be read as references to the Joint First Ministers.’
This new clause provides that First Minister and deputy First Minister be referred to as Joint First Ministers reflecting their identical status, powers and responsibilities.
New clause 4—Appointment of First Ministers—
‘(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection 16A (appointment of Ministers following Assembly election), leave out subsections (4) to (7) and subsection (9), and insert after subsection (3)—
“(3ZA) Each candidate for the office of joint First Ministers, must stand for election jointly with a candidate for the other office.
(3ZB) Two candidates standing jointly shall not be elected to the two offices without one or more of the following measures of representational support—
(a) the support of a majority of members, a majority of designated Nationalists and a majority of Unionists; or
(b) the support of 60 per cent of members, 40 per cent of designated Nationalists and 40 per cent of designated Unionists; or
(c) the support of two thirds of members.
(3ZC) The First Minister and the deputy First Minister—
(a) shall not take up office until each of them has affirmed the terms of the pledge of office; and
(b) subject to the provisions of this Part, shall hold office until the conclusion of the next election for First Ministers.
(3) In subsection (3)(a) the reference to “subsections (4) to (7)” shall be replaced by a reference to “subsections (3ZA) to (3ZC)”.’
This new clause would restore the Good Friday Agreement provision for joint election by the Assembly of the joint First Ministers.
Amendment 8, in clause 4, page 5, line 22, after “Assembly” insert “users of services,”
This amendment would ensure that Ministers and Departments are accountable and responsible to users of services, as well as to the Assembly and the public.
Amendment 6, page 5, line 25, at end insert—
“(ba) actively support the adoption and implementation of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland that is faithful to the stated intention of the 1998 Agreement”
This amendment requires Northern Ireland Ministers to support actively the adoption of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland as envisaged in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 and in paragraphs 5.26 to 5.29 of Annex E (Rights, language and identity) to The New Decade, New Approach Deal 2020.
Amendment 9, page 5, line 25, at end insert—
“(ba) ensure all reasonable requests for information from the Assembly, users of services and individual citizens are complied with; and that Departments and their staff conduct their dealings with the public in an open and responsible way;”
This amendment would ensure that the principles of transparency and openness, as well as a duty to comply with requests for information, as outlined in Strand One, Annex A of the Good Friday Agreement, are maintained within the Ministerial Code of Conduct.
Amendment 10, page 5, line 25, at end insert—
“(ba) seek in utmost good faith and by using their best endeavours to implement in full the Programme for Government in “The New Decade, New Approach Deal” as regards the transparency, accountability and the functioning of the Executive;”
This amendment requires Ministers to implement the Programme for Government agreed in January 2020, as it relates to transparency, accountability and functioning of the Executive.
Amendment 11, page 5, line 25, at end insert—
“(bb) seek in utmost good faith and by using their best endeavours to implement in full any future deal between the parties to “The New Decade, New Approach Deal” which may be approved by the Assembly;”
This amendment requires Ministers to implement the any future deal on the operation of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Amendment 12, page 5, line 2, at end insert—
“(ca) abide by and implement in every respect Annex A to Part 2 of “The New Decade, New Approach Deal” as regards the transparency, accountability and the functioning of the Executive;”
This amendment requires Ministers to strengthen and enforce the Ministerial Code and other codes including the Special Adviser Code of Conduct.
Amendment 2, page 5, line 28, at end insert—
“(da) comply with paragraph 2.11 of the Northern Ireland Executive Ministerial Code in relation to the inclusion of ministerial proposals on the agenda for the Northern Ireland Executive, with areas for resolution to be recorded in the list of “Executive papers in circulation” against those papers still outstanding after the third meeting, in accordance with paragraph 62(c) of section F of the Fresh Start Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan;”
This amendment moves from guidance to statute a commitment in the Fresh Start Agreement providing that an item may not be blocked for more than three meetings of the Executive through lack of agreement on the agenda.
Amendment 7, page 5, line 32, at end insert—
“and by supporting the establishment of the consultative Civic Forum established in pursuance of paragraph 34 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and by obtaining its views on social, economic and cultural matters;”
The intention of this amendment is to require Northern Ireland Ministers to support the reestablishment of a consultative Civic Forum for Northern Ireland to enable the Assembly to obtain views on social, economic and cultural matters as envisaged in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998.
Amendment 13, in clause 5, page 7, line 12, at end insert—
“(5A) When a petition of concern is lodged against a measure, proposal or a decision by a Minister, Department or the Executive (“the matter”), the Assembly shall appoint a special committee to examine and report on whether the matter is in conformity with equality and human rights requirements, including the European Convention on Human Rights and any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
(5B) Consistent with paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 (Strand 1) of the Belfast Agreement, a committee as provided for under subsection (3) may also be appointed at the request of the Executive Committee, a Northern Ireland Minister or relevant Assembly Committee.
(5C) A committee appointed under this section—
(a) shall have the powers to call people and papers to assist in its consideration; and
(b) shall take evidence from the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.
(5D) A committee appointed under this section shall—
(a) report in terms that reflect evidence regarding human rights and equality assessments relating to the matter; and
(b) identify relevant clarification, adjustments and amendments (in the case of legislation) and/or other assurances which would address the stated concerns.
(5E) The Assembly shall consider the report of any committee appointed under this section and determine the matter in accordance with the requirements for cross-community support.
(5F) In relation to any specific petition of concern or request under subsection (5B), the Assembly may decide, with cross-community support, that the procedure in subsections (5A) and (5C) shall not apply.”
This amendment provides for a petition of concern to lead to a special procedure, described in paragraphs 11-13 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement, whereby a special committee shall consider the stated concern(s) relating to equality requirements and/or human rights. Such a special committee could also be appointed at the request of the Executive Committee, a Northern Ireland Minister or relevant Assembly Committee.
Amendment 3, page 7, line 19, at end insert—
“(aa) make provision for the minimum period under (a) to be reduced in prescribed circumstances to be determined by the Assembly;”
This amendment gives the Assembly the discretion via its Standing Orders to reduce the timescales in relation to Petitions of Concerns in circumstances to be determined by the Assembly.
Amendment 14, page 7, line 27, at end insert—
“(ca) specify the size, timescale and terms of reference for such a committee; and
(cb) specify procedure(s) to allow for subsection (5E).”
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 13 and would further clarify how standing orders should make due provision for the working terms for the sort of special committee/ procedure in respect of stated human rights or equality concerns as outlined in paragraphs 11-13 of Strand One of the Good Friday Agreement.
Amendment 4, page 7, line 31, at end insert—
“(e) make provision to allow petitioners to withdraw a petition of concern at any stage in the process.”
This amendment would allow for a Petition of Concern to be withdrawn and to enable the affected matter of business to proceed without waiting for any statutory timetable to be concluded.
Amendment 5, page 7, line 37, at end insert—
“unless prescribed circumstances to be determined by the Assembly to reduce this period, apply”
Amendment 1, in clause 8, page 8, line 8,a leave out—
“at the end of the period of two months beginning with” and insert “on”.”
This amendment enables the Bill to be commenced with Royal Assent.
At the outset, I take the opportunity to pay tribute to Sir David Amess and pass on my condolences to his family. I also reference his personal connection to the Bill, in that he was one of the Chairs in Committee. True to his character, he handled proceedings professionally, efficiently and with huge impartiality. May I also say, for those MPs who are still new to this place and are still swotting up on procedure, that he was very generous and understanding in that regard? I also thank the House of Commons staff, and the Bill Clerks in particular, for the rapid turnaround of amendments in the past week.
The amendments in my name fall into four broad categories: the election or nomination of First Minister and Deputy First Minister; reforms to petitions of concern; the operation of the Executive; and the commencement date. On the nomination and election of the First Ministers, frankly the current system does not work. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister are identical in terms of status, powers, responsibilities and duties. That one small distinction in wording takes on disproportionate importance—indeed it is only symbolic—and turns our elections into the politics of fear. That risks crowding out consideration of important economic, social and environmental issues during election campaigns. They are often about keeping the other side out, and yet, in the past, the so-called victorious party has gone on to share power in the same joint office with the largest party from the other designation.
There is speculation that Sinn Féin could emerge as the largest party after the next Assembly election and we have two Unionist parties unwilling to make clear whether in such circumstances they would serve as Deputy First Minister. That is hugely destabilising and a selective application of the rules of democracy as they stand. That could lead us into a difficult situation after the next election. People should clearly adhere to the rules, but that does not preclude us from seeking support for reforms to make the system work more effectively.
It is important to note that there will be issues on which we can find agreement. There will also be issues and amendments before us today on which we cannot find agreement. However, importantly for these proceedings, does the hon. Member agree that, as we discussed in Committee, the Bill fairly reflects what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach and that, unless and until we get joint agreement on a range of issues through another forum, we should not be tinkering around with too many amendments?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his comments. I agree partially. The Bill does accurately reflect the New Decade, New Approach agreement, but it is worth referencing that that was made back in January 2020. I pay tribute to the former Secretary of State, Julian Smith, for his endeavours in that regard. However, we have had many political developments since then. One of my great frustrations as a Member of this place and previously as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly is that we often respond to the last crisis and fix the rules to address what has already happened rather than trying to look ahead, anticipate where crises are likely to happen and put measures in place that will make the world operate more easily.
That brings me to new clause 1, in my name, which seeks to address anomalies in the current system. At present, the largest party regardless of designation is entitled to the position of First Minister. However, the Deputy First Minister must come from the largest party from the largest remaining designation. I do not want to get too far ahead of myself as a member of the Alliance party, but it is conceivable that, one day—perhaps after the next election or at some time in the future—a party that is not Unionist or nationalist may be the second-largest party in Northern Ireland and yet it would not be automatically entitled to that position. That would create a certain crisis of legitimacy in terms of the institutions and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister team. With that small measure, we could address that problem.
Secondly, I turn to new clause 4 in in the names of Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna of the Social Democratic and Labour party, which would essentially return to the Good Friday agreement model and the first iteration in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by providing for an election of a joint team of FM and DFM. That would have two advantages: Assembly endorsement of the team; and reinforcement of the point of collective responsibility from being part of a joint office, not two individuals pursuing separate agendas.
My one reservation is that that relies on the current cross-community voting system, which is fundamentally linked to the designation system. As hon. Members will know, MLAs are required to sign in as Unionist, nationalist or other. I used to be an “other”, which is a wonderful way to describe one’s identity. The system perpetuates the two communities model in Northern Ireland rather than reflecting the diversity that existed in 1998 and that which exists today. There are people with open, mixed and multiple identities, and there are people from different backgrounds who have come to live in Northern Ireland and are not properly reflected in how we frame the operation of the Assembly. That needs reform.
Thirdly, new clause 2, in my name, would return to the Good Friday agreement model but with the distinction that we end up with a purely weighted majority vote—set at two thirds—without reference to any designations whatsoever. That is the fairest and most ideal way to address the issue. It would avoid some anomalous outcomes and inflexibility. Both new clauses on the second and third options would take the opportunity to acknowledge in law and change terminology to confirm and reinforce that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are identical in status, powers, responsibilities and duties.
New clause 3—my final amendment in the group—would reinforce that point about the equality of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in all those respects but outside the context of the nomination or election process. We may not be able to find consensus on that during the Bill’s remaining stages. However, we should take the opportunity outwith that to reflect in law that the FM and DFM are entirely equal, to try to take the heat out of the fairly stupid, meaningless contrast that is made and creates huge tension in our election campaigns. Unfortunately, we would need to make one exception and say that that would not apply to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister election process, because, until we change the system, someone must be put in place first, and someone else second.
I turn to petitions of concern, which have been a source of huge controversy in the past 20 years in Northern Ireland. Petitions of concern have been used and abused well beyond their original intention. They have brought huge discredit, and indeed tension, to the Assembly. It is worth noting that virtually no human rights or equality legislation has been passed by the Assembly. Instead, it has been done either through various periods of direct rule or through the direct intervention of Westminster, notably through the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 in recent times. I welcome the reforms in New Decade, New Approach, but the Alliance party is sceptical about whether they go far enough. People may say that there have not been any petitions of concern since the Assembly’s restoration. That is true, but we have also not had much legislation or any equality or human rights pieces before the Assembly. We must therefore remain vigilant.
I want to test two points with the Government. The first lies in the 14-day timeframe for a petition of concern to be considered, which may turn out to be a straitjacket. There may well be situations in which a matter must be considered urgently, such as a legal responsibility or some other deadline that must be met in response to a legislative consent motion. I therefore think it is worth clarifying that the Assembly has the ability within its Standing Orders to vary that 14-day timeframe if the circumstances warrant it. In a similar light, a petitioner or set of petitioners could withdraw their support for a petition if they feel that the issues they were concerned about have been addressed otherwise, rather than having the clock continue. In Committee, the Minister of State’s predecessor did give such reassurances, and I hope that the incumbent will be happy to do the same today.
I turn briefly to the operation of the Executive. Amendment 2 would move the “three meetings rule” from guidance to statute. At present, we have much concern in relation to the petitions of concern issue in the Assembly, but it is not as commonly understood that there are mutual vetoes in the context of the Executive. They must also be addressed. One such veto relates to the formation of the agenda. At times, Ministers have sought to put papers on the agenda but been blocked persistently. The three meetings rule is therefore of particular importance.
I appreciate that others are waiting to speak so, finally, I want to talk about the commencement timeframe. Comments about such timeframes may be unusual on Report, but this is an important point in this particular context. It is unusual to have a Northern Ireland Bill moving through Parliament at the normal pace of a Bill—most tend to be matters of urgency.
The ethos of the New Decade, New Approach agreement was to ensure that the institutions worked together, that we have sustainability and that we try to avoid crises, whether that is collapse of the Assembly or difficulty in forming a new Executive after an Assembly election. It is two years since New Decade, New Approach was agreed, but we are only now putting this into legislation, and we meet in the midst of a potential crisis of non-delivery of other aspects of New Decade, New Approach, with tensions emerging around the protocol and the unrealistic demands made in that regard—the Democratic Unionist party of colleagues sitting in front of me has made threats that it may withdraw its Ministers from the Executive in the near future—as well as speculation about what might happen after the next Assembly election. It would therefore be seen as absurd if we had a crisis when the measures in the Bill could to some extent have been helpful in managing that crisis. However, the Bill might still be in the process of going through Parliament or, even worse, it might have received Royal Assent but, because of the two-month commencement period, we would not be in a position to deploy the measures that might have helped the situation.
Nothing, of course, can overcome lack of trust or people’s determination not to work with the institutions, but if we have measures that can incentivise co-operation and provide space for people to reflect, granting some breathing space, we should take the opportunity, because that situation might well come into effect. The final amendment, therefore, is designed to avoid a situation in which the measures in the Bill, worthy as they may be, cannot be deployed in a real-time crisis. That would be a shame, so I urge the Government to reflect on that point in particular.
Before I call the next speaker, I should just say that this debate must finish at 2.18 pm. We then go on to Third Reading. Obviously, the Front Benchers and Ministers will want some time to wind up, so this part of the debate is limited, depending on how many people wish to speak. I ask Members to bear that in mind.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I commend the debate and the discussion about the First Minister’s titles and many of the other issues raised by Stephen Farry. I am particularly sympathetic about the commencement date. However, I do not believe that this is the right place or the right Bill for many of the other amendments. Even more importantly, they risk the House losing focus on the important issue at hand: the need to implement the clauses in the Bill that assert the continuation of the Executive, with Ministers in caretaker roles, should a First or Deputy First Minister exit power sharing. A number of witnesses in Committee raised the importance of those clauses.
The sustainability clauses were a key part of last year’s New Decade, New Approach agreement and they have not yet been implemented. On Second Reading, in July, my right hon. Friend Mr Harper highlighted the fact that the Government were already looking tardy. The sustainability clauses were agreed in order to avoid what happened in 2017, which led to three years of no Government in Northern Ireland. Even when the Bill progresses to the other place, I fear that there will be timetabling delays. As we heard, the Bill also has a two-month commencement date, so it will not be implemented for several months.
That is important because, should a First or Deputy First Minister leave office, only two weeks are provided to fill the slots. There is then a duty on the Secretary of State to call an election, but history shows that the election is often not called immediately and Northern Ireland is left ungoverned. The Bill will stop the political parties from thinking that there is an emergency escape hatch when things become politically difficult and will provide for up to 24 weeks to resolve things.
Currently, a number of issues could tempt political parties to use that escape hatch: the protocol, the cultural package, the UK Government’s putative changes to the Human Rights Act 1998, and the legacy proposals. A cocktail of issues are being injected, sometimes recklessly, into the fragile ecosystem of Northern Ireland. In that context, there is a clear and present danger of one Northern Ireland party or more diving for the emergency escape hatch. The Bill will slam shut that cop-out option.
The first clauses of the Bill are designed to put the ball back in the court of any party that seeks to exit the Executive and to shine the spotlight on each political party in Northern Ireland to restore government. Otherwise, the ball comes back into the UK Government’s court. The vast majority of NI citizens want continued devolved government. Yes, there are arguments for change and reforms at the right time, such as new clause 3, but the big issue today is why the Bill has not yet been implemented. More importantly, this House must be clear that the Bill needs to be implemented now.
The practical measures that will allow continued government—now 18 months late—will ensure that Northern Ireland business and citizens get the stability they crave. I therefore urge the Government to get the Bill to the Lords quickly, to remove the two-month commencement date and to ensure that they get behind keeping the pressure on all parties to maintain devolved government and maintaining the Good Friday agreement in all its parts.
First, I welcome many of the provisions in the Bill. As the previous speaker, Julian Smith, knows well, we had many long hours in the three-year hiatus of the Northern Ireland Assembly discussing a lot of this stuff, but it is deeply depressing that 23 years after the Good Friday agreement we are meeting today to find ways to stop political parties pulling the whole show apart.
The political context is that, a few years ago, Sinn Féin pulled the Assembly down for three full years—waiting lists got longer, schools began to crumble, the economy was not dealt with. Even as we stand here today, the DUP is threatening to bring down the very edifice of government in Northern Ireland. If it does not gets its way, it will pull down the Assembly. It has already withdrawn from a key tenet of the Good Friday agreement, which is north-south co-operation. What does that say to the people out there who are languishing on waiting lists? Is it that the DUP’s little niche issues are more important than dealing with the day-to-day, bread-and-butter problems that people face? It is a terrible indictment of our politics that we are even here discussing this.
I will speak to some of the amendments, in particular those on how the First and Deputy First Ministers are elected and appointed, what those offices do and what they are called. My view is that they have always been joint offices: the Deputy First Minister cannot send a letter without the First Minister saying it is okay; the First Minister cannot answer a question without the Deputy First Minister saying it is okay; and many decisions cannot be made without agreement between the two. Decisions are very infrequently made, it seems, because they do not seem to agree on an awful lot.
What is really concerning, all these years after the Good Friday agreement, is that as of today, none of the Unionist parties has told us what they would do if a nationalist gets enough votes to occupy the First Minister’s position. They are refusing to tell us whether they would even serve in that Government. Well, it is not 1968 anymore, and nationalists will no longer be treated as second-class citizens. People have marched in the streets and been beaten off the streets so that our votes could count just as much as anyone else’s. If Unionist politicians want to come along and lecture anybody about the sustainability of institutions and working together, they must seriously consider their answer the next time they are asked whether they would serve as Deputy First Minister if a nationalist becomes First Minister.
In reality—we have seen this before with the Justice Minister—because of a cosy agreement between a big nationalist party and the DUP, a nationalist is still not allowed to serve in the Department of Justice. In fact it is a joint office, which is why new clause 3 has been tabled, and it is about time we looked at that reality. From listening to some of the big radio shows in Northern Ireland and watching the television news, it is clear that over the next six months in the run-up to this election—if we are allowed to have an election—we will be faced with constant arguing: “Who will be First Minister and who will be Deputy First Minister? You have to come out to vote to stop these people becoming First Minister.” Even though we have had that for 20 years, the DUP still go into government with them. DUP Members used to say, “We can’t have Martin McGuinness as First Minister. He was a terrorist”, but then they went into government with him, occupied that very same office, and worked with him every day.
Let us, please, get rid of the constant division and debate about who is First Minister and who is Deputy First Minister. I sense we will not get there today, but there is an opportunity, which I ask the Government to consider, to look at new clause 3 and think seriously about how we resolve this issue. The job of the British and Irish Governments in our peace process is to see problems before they arise, and a blind man on a galloping horse can see what is coming round the corner if we do not resolve this issue now.
It suits the DUP and Sinn Féin to have constant debate about what they call each other, because then we are not dealing with the real issues. Our health service is on the point of collapse, 100 times more people are on out-patient waiting lists in Northern Ireland than they are in England, 29% of our children are living in poverty, but there is still no antipoverty strategy because they could not agree it. My constituency has the highest level of unemployment and economic inactivity anywhere across these islands, and we still do not have the 10,000 students on the Magee university campus who were promised and negotiated by me and the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during those NDNA discussions.
The legacy of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s 15 years in government has been failure, failure and more failure, and they want this argument. Everybody knows that. The Government know it, we know it, the Irish Government know it, and everybody in the House knows it: they want this argument so that they can get away in the smoke for not actually delivering for people. I implore the Government to think seriously about the best way to address this issue. There are a number of good ideas in the new clause, and the best way would be to get rid of the nonsense and pretence that the First Minister is more important than the Deputy First Minister. They are joint First Ministers, so let us begin properly to call them that.
In conclusion, it is a bit rich for the Government to be telling anybody about sustainability in Northern Ireland, when everything they do in Northern Ireland undermines sustainability and the stability of our institutions. That includes how they dealt with the European Union and the DUP, and what they told them about the protocol—apparently there was never going to be a border anywhere. Well, there is one now, and if we were more honest with people we would be in a much better situation.
The NDNA agreement also mentioned 90 days for implementing legacy legislation, but where has that gone? The five parties in Northern Ireland, and every victims’ group, opposes the Government’s proposals on legacy, yet they seem determined to push that forward. We are still waiting—perhaps today is the opportunity—for the Government to tell us when Irish language and culture legislation will be brought to the House, as agreed at NDNA. There is an opportunity to stop the crisis that we are looking at down the barrel—it is clear it is coming—and for the Government to step in and do something, before we end up with another three years of collapse, when more people will be languishing on waiting lists.
Let me echo what my right hon. Friend Julian Smith said about the need for speed to get this legislation through, which I urge on my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and hopefully on business managers in the other place. This Bill has dawdled for too long. I agree very much with the vast majority of what Colum Eastwood had to say, and I shall come back to that point in a moment. [Interruption.] It is not “surprise, surprise”, and I say to Carla Lockhart that when somebody speaks sense, one should usually notice and acknowledge it.
Alex Kane, who is known to many in this House, tweeted this morning:
“23 years after the GFA the government is introducing legislation to give a six month ‘life raft’ for parties (on full pay I presume)—”
I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to give further consideration to that point when the Bill arrives in the other place—
“if one or other of the big two walks away and collapse looks likely. All it will do is nurture crises over longer periods and bolster instability.”
I know that is the last thing the Government want to do, but we must ensure that we are not bedding in the psychology of instability, if you will. As the hon. Members for Foyle and for North Down (Stephen Farry), and doubtless others, made clear, devolution is not a plaything. It is not there to support or to kick around like a football between two, three or four parties; it is the localisation of decision making. Many right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies will have had inboxes and postbags about this issue that are far fuller than mine as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
In the last interregnum, what has been happening on education, health, housing and infrastructure? This is about delivering prosperity and peace, lives and livelihoods. All of us who pick up the baton of public service should always remind ourselves of that. Particularly as we come out of covid, the communities of Northern Ireland need us all, whether those working in Stormont or those here, to be resolutely focused on meeting and delivering on their needs, as we will in every other part of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is making a sensible point about the extension of a crisis period. We currently have a situation where a crisis could last for days, and we are now potentially extending that by up to six months. Irrespective of what side of the debate they are on, I ask Members across the House to contemplate whether they would tolerate in their part of the United Kingdom a crisis in statute that is allowed to perpetuate itself for up to six months before it ultimately comes to the buffer zone, or to the point at which it has to be delivered. That point needs to be considered by all hon. Members when they vote on this measure.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, who serves with me on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Thank heavens this is not being dealt with as emergency legislation and rushed through in a 12-hour sitting, but once again it speaks of dealing with Northern Ireland as something other, or as something different, and with a set of circumstances and rules that none of us would find tolerable in England and my constituency of North Dorset, or in Wales or Scotland. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that we should all be conscious of.
I remember going through these negotiations with some of the people who are now in the Chamber. In reality—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree with this—it was DUP Members who pushed hardest for long periods to try to resolve some of these issues. They were responding to the issue that Sinn Féin had collapsed the institutions last time around. Of course, this time they are the ones threatening to do that, but that was largely the DUP position, and it is strange to hear Ian Paisley now opposing it.
All I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that I was not privy to those discussions, but we are where we are. We must realise that things have clearly moved on. The operation and reform of the protocol is sitting here like an elephant in the Chamber, but it speaks to my point that the workable delivery of devolution should not be used as a plaything for other issues.
That takes me to the point that the hon. Member for North Down made about democracy. We cannot have a functioning democracy in these islands that is effectively based on the Henry Ford model of selling a car. Henry Ford used to say, “You can have any colour as long as it’s black.” We cannot say, “You can have as many elections as you like as long as I turn out as the winner. If I don’t—if the public have spoken and I haven’t been successful—I won’t accept the result. I will tear the edifice down,” in some sort of democratic political toddler’s temper tantrum. That is not how we do it. Democracy only works when all of us who win take up the weight of winning with responsibility and those who lose accept that they have lost and somebody else has won. If people do not abide by that simple equation, that is not democracy, and that should cause us all considerable concern.
My final point, echoing what the hon. Member for North Down said, is that in the system that we have for sorting these things out, the language that is used—“Unionist”, “nationalist” and “other”—may be past its sell-by date. It hard-bakes into the language and the systems a previous age. It does not reflect Northern Ireland as it is today. This is not the time for it, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that at some point in the not-too-distant future, serious, considered, sober thought needs to be given to how these issues are addressed in order to present Northern Ireland to the rest of the world, and to the rest of the United Kingdom, as it is today and not as it was 20 years ago, or 40 or 50 years ago. We need a contemporary review of that in order to ensure that it is fit for purpose.
My cri de coeur is for all parties to understand that devolution, and its delivery of public service and improvement of life for those who live in Northern Ireland, is not something to be taken lightly. It is not a plaything to be kicked around for cheap party political points.
It is always a pleasure to speak on any issue in this House, but particularly on issues to do with Northern Ireland. I welcome the Minister of State, Conor Burns, to his new role and wish him well. He rightly came to see the No. 1 constituency in Northern Ireland, Strangford, before he had seen anywhere else. We are very pleased to have had the opportunity to have him there, and we wish him well in his role.
As always, the debate has been clear, and my party’s reasoning has been clearer. I am not enamoured with the form of government in Northern Ireland, and I do not believe that it can or does work, as has been demonstrated very clearly over the last couple of years. I absolutely believe in the right of this place to govern and legislate. However, as my colleagues have said, this is a matter that should be debated in the appropriate forum and not tagged on to this Bill. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee at Stormont is the mechanism to do that.
It grieves me that decisions were made in this place when they should have been made through the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I want to put that on the record. That leads me to an issue that I feel must be highlighted again: this Bill aims to secure a working Assembly with the best mechanism possible, yet it seems that this House interferes at will when public opinion calls for it. That must come to an end. It is time that this place gave the Northern Ireland Assembly the authority to make decisions.
During covid, despite discussion of an abortion Bill, this Government determined that they would bring in abortion in Northern Ireland in the most open way not just in the UK but in all of Europe. Along with colleagues, I strongly resented that, and I still resent it. We now face this Government acting on the NDNA deal, but only when it comes to the Irish language. With great respect to Colum Eastwood, for me this issue is as clear as a bell. The rest of the important provisions, such as health and education, on which there were goals and aims, have been left to trickle through, yet the Irish language is to be given priority by this place.
As my party’s health spokesperson, it concerns me greatly that across Northern Ireland, in a post-covid world, the waiting time for an urgent hip replacement is upwards of five years, for cataract surgery it is upwards of four years, and breast reconstruction for breast cancer survivors is years down the line, with no date whatsoever. I have talked to some of my constituents back home who are fluent and interested Irish language speakers, and they tell me that they want to see priority given to issues such as health and education, to ensure that they are addressed first. I am not sure that the people of the Province believe that the Government should step in and fund these measures.
There are children out of education. There are many schools in my area that are awaiting refurbishment or rebuilding, and that cannot get the support they need in the form of classroom assistants. There is a big issue, too, with assessment for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. We get referrals every day of the week for those things. There is a generation of children who have had the option to learn music stripped from them, as budget slashing has meant a choice between culture or a teacher.
Those are real issues that impact every one of my constituents, whether they are Unionist or nationalist, whether they are in favour of the Irish language or against it. Those are the issues that people tell me clearly that they want to see addressed. I resent that priority has been given to one aspect of the NDNA over the life-changing aspects, and I urge the Minister to allow the Assembly to carry out its duties according to priority and not political machinations.
I understand the need to support the measures before us today, but I must put on the record my concerns about the prioritisation of some of the spending that the Government have looked towards. Clearly, we should be spending more on policing, because we need more police officers on the streets across Northern Ireland. We have a dearth of them at the moment. The training college is turning out as many as it can as quickly as it can, but the places of those who retire are still not being filled. Improvements need to be made in health, education and policing, and that is where I would like to see the focus.
At the same time, I urge the Government to do the right thing and allow the Assembly to prioritise need over wish and people over politics, and to make our own determination on Northern Ireland issues. I believe in devolution; I always have. I want the devolution that we have in Northern Ireland to achieve something. History has shown that direct rule is not beneficial for the people of the Province. I will therefore support the Bill, hoping against hope that Lord Frost will achieve what he sets out to achieve and ensure that Northern Ireland stops being a third country to the UK and is accepted as an integral part of it.
The next step will be asking the Government not to treat the Assembly as a local council with minor responsibilities, but to allow it to take tough decisions in a democratic manner. I believe that is the foundation of the Bill, and that is why I will support it, but I say to the Minister—I hope that he will respond—that there are priorities that need to be addressed first. I think we all realise that, and my constituents tell me that. Health, education, the economy and policing are where spending should be prioritised—not the Irish language.
May I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, Conor Burns, to his place? I thank his predecessor, Mr Walker. He and I enjoyed a very cordial relationship, and I hope that the right hon. Member and I can continue in that fashion for the people of Northern Ireland.
I rise to speak to amendments 6 and 7 in my name and that of my hon. Friend Louise Haigh. The instability in recent months has been unsettling for all of us who cherish the Good Friday agreement and believe that its institutions and the principles that underpin it represent the best way forward for Northern Ireland.
As ever, however, that instability has been felt most keenly by the people of Northern Ireland. It is clear that they need a stable, functioning Executive to meet the enormous health and economic challenges facing Northern Ireland. Indeed, as we have heard, a third of the entire population are languishing on health waiting lists, nearly 300 children are without a post-primary place for next year, and of course recovery from covid remains ongoing.
For all political leaders in Northern Ireland, a stable, functioning Executive must be the priority in the coming days and weeks. We welcome attempts to safeguard power sharing and improve the sustainability of the Executive and the Assembly. The lessons of the past should offer a clear warning to all of us. Institutions are much easier to collapse than they are to get back up and running. Recent events could scarcely have provided a clearer example of why the provisions contained in the Bill are necessary. It is partly for that reason that the Labour party supports the measures contained in the Bill, although we are deeply concerned that the Secretary of State has stalled on the legislation for so long that it will not now be in a position to be a useful tool in the difficult weeks and months ahead.
In Committee, we raised our concerns with the Minister about the provisions on the caretaker institutions to prevent misuse and promote good governance. We urge the Minister to explain what the “within well-defined limits” for the caretaker Executive are. The only definitions of powers are those set out in the ministerial code, but the code is silent on that point. Which ministerial decisions will they be able to take that are significant, controversial or cross-cutting? Will they be able to take decisions with financial implications in a caretaker capacity? The point has been made that the limits will be those set out in the Programme for Government and the specific requirement to refer any measures that are significant, controversial or cross-cutting not within a Programme for Government. It will not have escaped the Minister’s attention, however, that there is no Programme for Government currently. Without clear limits, many of which may simply be carried over from the previous mandate, Ministers are left operating within a legal lacuna. I would welcome some clarity from the Minister on that point.
Turning to our amendments, as I said, Labour supports the Bill but believes there are several missed opportunities for the Government to refocus on delivering on the promise of peace, which has been allowed to stall. We have sought to table amendments to press for the full implementation of the Government’s commitments under the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which, like the Bill, have been delayed for far too long.
The same principle is true for the undelivered promises of the Good Friday agreement on a Bill of Rights, integrated education and housing, women’s rights, and giving communities a real say in decision making. They were the essence of the Good Friday agreement and the shared future it imagined, but progress on those issues has been virtually non-existent over the past decade. The agreements are integral to the trust communities have in the post-Good Friday agreement landscape, and underpin the devolution of power contained within it. That means there is a responsibility on all of us in Westminster, Dublin and Stormont to faithfully implement the agreements that made it possible. We do not believe that the instability we see can be separated from the failure to deliver on such commitments. The way to guarantee stability is to demonstrate that commitments made will be honoured, and that Westminster is still prepared to step up and honour our side of the bargain.
I am sure the hon. Lady appreciates, as I do, that Wales now has two language Acts and one language measure, and that they have been great sources of pleasure and a celebration of our culture, bringing people together. I am sure, like me, she would ask the Minister when the Irish language Act will be brought forward, because the end of the month is very fast approaching.
I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Lady. She is right that the Welsh Language Act 1993 massively strengthened our culture in Wales and us as a country. I press the Minister on when we can expect that legislation to be forthcoming.
Our amendment would help to push forward progress on two key areas: a Bill of Rights and the re-establishment of a civic forum. On a Bill of Rights, we on the Labour Benches are well aware that it is a reserved responsibility for the Secretary of State. The tightly drafted nature of the Bill meant it was difficult to put responsibility on the Secretary of State himself. Nevertheless, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was first promised in the 1998 Good Friday agreement, but progress towards its development has repeatedly stalled. The establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights at Stormont earlier this year represents a fresh attempt to move things forward. A Bill was an essential and fundamental safeguard of the Good Friday agreement, and it is simply wrong that it has not been developed. Action is needed now.
We believe the Secretary of State should take action by responding to the forthcoming report of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the House of Commons Committee on a Bill of Rights. The Secretary of State should request that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission provides advice on a Bill of Rights, further to its functions as set out in section 69(7) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Secretary of State would subsequently lay before Parliament legislation giving effect to that advice. It is time to act.
On a civic forum, we believe that that was an important feature of decision making envisaged under the Good Friday agreement. Done well, it would give communities a strong say in decision making. It would give a voice in a deliberative forum to groups not often considered, and could vastly improve decision making in the process. The Good Friday agreement was about a new participative politics. The argument the Women’s Coalition put forward for a civic forum was as an advisory second chamber designed to give the trade union movement and businesses, as well as the community and the women’s movement, a place in political policy making. The prize of that expertise and knowledge is a durable solution that keeps communities on board, one that I hope will be considered going forward.
Finally, I will turn to the amendments in the name of Stephen Farry and my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). On new clause 1, on the appointment of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, it is clear that that was not envisaged by the Belfast-Good Friday agreement, but it is becoming an issue that must be dealt with through collective agreement. Polling shows, particularly among younger people, that identity is no longer binary. People identify as Irish, British and neither. It is far from inconceivable that the first and second-placed parties could come from neither Unionism nor nationalism. That raises important questions for the post-Belfast-Good Friday agreement and post-St Andrews power sharing mechanisms. I urge the Secretary of State not to put off serious consideration on this topic any longer. New clause 1, in the name of the hon. Member for North Down, raises questions that cannot be ignored and it is time for collective discussion.
On new clauses 2 and 4, we recognise the value and logic of a more consensual approach to electing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as envisaged by the Belfast-Good Friday agreement.
On new clause 3, in the name of the hon. Member for North Down and my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle and for Belfast South, the logic is again clear. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have exactly the same powers: each have an equal say in the affairs of Northern Ireland and each have a fundamental right for their position to be respected. Equality was the essence and the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and that is reflected in the joint powers held by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. New clause 3 reflects that, and it is one the Secretary of State should take away and look at seriously. Whichever tradition is elected to the position of First Minister and Deputy First Minister should be respected. Failure to do so simply undermines the principles of the Good Friday agreement. We hope the Minister will seriously consider the proposals.
It is a pleasure to be back at the Dispatch Box. I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I might briefly beg the indulgence of the House. I was in my office on Sunday afternoon, having had a very busy period in my first weeks in the Northern Ireland Office. There were some letters on my desk that were addressed as personal. I opened one to find it was a letter congratulating me on returning to Government from our late colleague Sir David Amess. I would just like to place on record my tribute to David. I knew him well. We served together on the all-party parliamentary group on the Holy See and had very many enjoyable trips to Rome. He had an irrepressible and irreverent sense of humour, and one was always cheered up by being in David’s company.
This has been a fascinating debate. It has been a debate, if I may say so, of two parts: the debate that makes reference to what is actually on the Order Paper and the amendments that have been tabled; and then there was the majority of the debate, which bore very little relationship to what is on the Order Paper or the amendments before the House. I will, in endeavouring to respond to various points, try to stick to the amendments and the Order Paper.
The Bill is deliberately limited in its scope. It is designed to implement the agreements reached under New Decade, New Approach. I make this point to all hon. Members who sit for Northern Ireland constituencies. Critically, those agreements were entered into by the parties in Northern Ireland. That is why we deliberately limited what we seek to do here. We are seeking to implement those commitments. We do not think it is the role of Her Majesty’s Government to innovate in this space when future changes, were they to be made, should be driven by the parties in Northern Ireland.
I understand entirely the point the Minister makes, but there have been occasions when the Government—both Governments, in fact—have given commitments. One is on an Irish language Act, or legislating for Irish language provisions and the rest of the cultural package. The Government said that they would do that by the end of October if legislation or agreement was not reached in Stormont. A spokesman for the Government reiterated that commitment at the start of this month. Can the Minister tell us when he is going to bring that legislative package forward? If he cannot tell us that today, can he at least give an assurance that the Government will hold to their word, and are still committed to legislating for Irish language and other cultural provisions?
What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that the Government have no intention of introducing an Irish language Act. We will bring forward a cultural package in which Irish language will play a part, but he knows as well as I do that language in Northern Ireland is often analysed very carefully, so we are not proposing such an Act. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have more to say on that in due course.
I read carefully the Committee stage and evidence sessions of the Bill to familiarise myself with the content before this debate. I place on record my appreciation for my predecessor, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, who had a very clear grasp of matters.
In essence, Gavin Robinson summed up the Bill in his intervention on Stephen Farry. This Bill implements the commitments in New Decade, New Approach; it does no more and no less. My right hon. Friend Julian Smith of course oversaw the negotiations that gave rise to that document. This Bill delivers on our commitments and seeks to put the institutions into a more sustainable format, should we ever—as we hope we do not—reach a position where the institutions again become vulnerable.
Colum Eastwood hit the nail on the head: what the people in Northern Ireland want us to focus on is the national health service and deprivation. That was certainly the message I got when I visited the Caw/Nelson Drive Community Action Group in his constituency and the Greater Shantallow Area Partnership. They were talking to me not about the intricacies of governance in Northern Ireland, but about their lives in their community, and how the Executive and the UK Government could make their lives better. That should absolutely be our focus.
There was an outbreak of consensus between Jim Shannon. I had a very enjoyable visit to the latter’s constituency. I met the Portavogie fishermen, who were powerful advocates for what needs to happen to support the fishing sector in Northern Ireland, and I enjoyed my visit to Castle Gardens primary school near the Bowtown estate. The hon. Gentleman, too, talked about health and education. Those are the priorities, and hopefully the stabilising measures we are bringing forward today will ensure that the Executive remains functioning and operational and can get on with those important matters within the devolved space—in particular, the national health service in Northern Ireland, which is under great stress indeed.
Another axis developed during the debate between my hon. Friend Simon Hoare and Ian Paisley. It is a rare thing that they find common ground and consensus. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset talked about the six months, and I would say to him that six months is a limit, not a target. We are trying to create maximum space, but we would hope that the Northern Irish parties would want to move quickly.
My hon. Friend suggested that perhaps the agreements were past their sell-by date. It is for the parties in Northern Ireland, if they want to innovate in that space, to get together and talk, but we are very clear that our job is to implement, to arbitrate and to oversee the agreements as they stand. Some of the amendments concerning the titles of First Minister and Deputy First Minister and some of the points made about the changing demographics within Northern Ireland may be things that the parties in Northern Ireland will want to come together to address, but we do not believe it is our role to be forcing that change on the parties in Northern Ireland within the devolved space without their consent.
Other parts of the Bill come, of course, from the requests of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, particularly the revisions around the ministerial code. We have taken what they have said and sought to put it into the Bill. We have also sought to return the petition of concern to the purpose for which it was originally intended and to make it more functional.
This is a straightforward and sensible set of proposals, aimed, as I said, at putting the governance system in Northern Ireland on to a more stable footing, to recognise some of the concerns that have been put to us, to honour the commitments that Her Majesty’s Government entered into in New Decade, New Approach. I commend the Bill to the House.
I will make some brief comments in closing the debate. First, I thank everyone who took part and presented their views. It was a largely good-natured debate. I thank in particular those on both Front Benches, including on the Government Front Bench, for their comments in that regard.
There is, shall we say, a certain tension between those who want to faithfully implement New Decade, New Approach—I include myself in that category—and those who acknowledge that we are almost two years on from that point, a lot of politics has happened and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. We must be mindful of the next set of crises that are coming; sadly, this is Northern Ireland, and there is always a crisis around the corner, so we must be mindful to anticipate that in a reasonable way and act ahead of time, for once, rather than having to do so after the crisis emerges.
I am not minded to push any of the amendments to a vote today, and I am sure the House will be pleased with that, but a number of points that have been raised today merit further reflection from all parties. I appreciate that the other place will also want to express its views on this legislation. I hope therefore that there will be further opportunity for both that place and in due course this House to reflect further on some of the points made today.
Perhaps, with some degree of reflection and further consultation with Northern Ireland parties, there may well be the basis for taking forward some further model steps that may provide a slightly more robust system to handle what may be coming around the corner. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
In doing so, I acknowledge the hard work that has got us to this point. I pay tribute to former Secretaries of State for their role in supporting institutions in Northern Ireland during the most recent collapse. As this is the first time I have been at the Dispatch Box since the sad news, I pay particular tribute to James Brokenshire. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Absolutely; I appreciate the comments from across the House. Both as a friend I have known for just over two decades, and in his role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he showed truly admirable dedication to the people he represented, to colleagues and to friends, and dedication and commitment to the people of Northern Ireland.
I also want to thank hon. Members from all political parties who participated in debating the merits of the Bill. In particular, I thank the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Louise Haigh, and the shadow Minister, Alex Davies-Jones, for their diligent scrutiny efforts and broad support for the measures set out in this Bill, and for their comments today.
I also express my thanks to colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Office of the Speaker of the Assembly, and to those who represent Northern Ireland constituencies in this House, all of whom have contributed to and been part of the work that has led to today, and the negotiations on New Decade, New Approach.
I acknowledge the hard-working civil servants, here in Whitehall and in Belfast. Not only did they support the successful negotiation of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, but they have since helped the progress of the Bill and continually help to deliver on the fundamental commitments made by this Government within that deal—including, I have no doubt, some very late nights supporting my colleague and right hon. Friend Julian Smith, who would have put in those hours of effort in the lead-up to the final agreement of this Bill. I say a huge thank you to everyone who has been involved.
I reaffirm our view that our Union is strongest when its institutions work well, work together and deliver real change on the issues that matter, as colleagues have mentioned today. For Northern Ireland, that means properly functioning institutions, both in Stormont and Westminster, that allow Stormont to focus on the core issues that, as colleagues across parties have said today, must be focused on. To have one third of the population on a waiting list is not good enough for the Northern Ireland health service. Some 23 years since the Good Friday agreement, only to have approximately 7% of the population benefiting from integrated education is not good enough for the people of Northern Ireland, and we must move further on that together.
The Bill is a focused Bill. It will deliver necessary and well overdue reforms to strengthen the sustainability of institutions in Northern Ireland, update the ministerial code of conduct and reform the petition-of-concern mechanism. These measures, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has outlined, were all agreed by the main political parties in Northern Ireland when the Executive were restored, and it would be remiss of us to begin to tweak and change the details here in Westminster without further agreement from the parties. I am confident that those in the Executive and the Assembly will continue to work in the same good faith in which the measures were negotiated, as we in Parliament will; I will come back in a few moments to comments made on that point.
For those reasons, the House should support the Bill’s Third Reading. UK Governments of all colours and types have worked to maintain peace and encourage political stability in Northern Ireland over the decades. I am grateful to the Opposition for welcoming the Bill and the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
The Government accept, however, that this is just one piece of the jigsaw. The positive difference that a restored Executive have made to the people of Northern Ireland is clear to see, despite the great challenges that we have all had as a result of covid-19—particularly as the Executive were restored just days before the covid pressure came upon us all. The past 18 months have demonstrated that a power-sharing Executive can work together under the hardest of circumstances to find compromise and act in the shared interests of all communities in Northern Ireland. The Bill can only empower their capability in that respect.
The Government have listened to and are grateful for all contributions made by Members of this House. I appreciate that it is frustrating for some Members that we have been unable to accept non-Government amendments, despite the great intentions behind them, some of which have been outlined today. That is because many go beyond what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach, although I note the comment from Stephen Farry that we are now two years on and that there are some things in New Decade, New Approach that, as time moves on and we learn more, we need to look at.
But my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon is right: we need to focus on delivering what was agreed. As co-guarantors of New Decade, New Approach, we have a duty to ensure that, for all people in Northern Ireland, the measures are delivered as they were agreed upon by the main parties.
Members of this Chamber have expressed eagerness for the delivery of further commitments made under the New Decade, New Approach agreement and will be glad to hear that we have made good progress. For example, we have appointed the Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner; introduced legislation to further enshrine the armed forces covenant in law; published reports on the use of the petition-of-concern mechanism in the Assembly; contributed to the creation of a new Northern Ireland graduate entry medical school in Derry/Londonderry, which I agree we want to see developed further; and supplemented the new deal for Northern Ireland’s £400 million fund to promote Northern Ireland as a cyber security hub, to name just a few things.
There is more to come. We have made commitments to ensure that areas that were committed to be delivered within the mandate for Stormont will be delivered; a cultural package is part of that, and we will do that. We are proud of the progress made thus far. The UK Government are committed to ensuring that New Decade, New Approach is delivered in full. I reassure hon. Members that further progress will be made in due course.
Both for the Executive and for us, covid has meant decisions being made, and pressure being put on legislative time, on decisions and on work done—we all understand that. As we move out of covid, we want to move quickly and get things done, and I hope that the Executive will be doing the same.
May I go back to the cultural package? I think the House’s understanding is very clear as to how my right hon. Friend envisages dealing with the matter. However, is he able to say a little more, not so much about what it might be called as about when we might actually see it, if indeed this place needs to see it—or is it his expectation that Stormont will deliver it?
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee highlights an important point. It is still technically possible for the Executive to start a procedure that would allow the package to be delivered within the mandate, which has always been the intent, the focus and the desire for those involved in New Decade, New Approach. As I have said, we are very clear that, if it becomes clear that the Executive are unable to do that, or are not moving it forward, we will bring forward legislation to deliver the cultural package as set out in NDNA—no more, but no less. We will do that; I will not go further than that at the moment.
The purpose of the Bill is to implement what was agreed by all parties in the New Decade, New Approach deal. During the passage of the Bill, including this afternoon, there has been sensible, interesting and well-argued debate on the wider institutions and options in Northern Ireland. I look forward to seeing discussions continue among the Northern Ireland parties and to engaging on these matters with them and with colleagues here, as well as to following discussions in the other place, as the hon. Member for North Down rightly outlined.
Could the Secretary of State go slightly further and give an assurance that, if the House of Lords considers potential further reforms, and if soundings from the Northern Ireland political parties show consensus in relation to them, the Government will be open-minded about legislating—either in the Bill, which may be the most obvious opportunity, or in other legislation—to put them into effect, particularly ahead of the next Assembly election?
I am always open-minded about listening to ideas and options, particularly for things that come together on which there is agreement between the parties. As others, including my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, have said, the important point is about New Decade, New Approach: the issues that we have dealt with in the Bill were agreed, negotiated and discussed among all the parties in Northern Ireland. We need to see those discussions continuing. If there are things on which all parties agree and on which Westminster is required to legislate, I am very open-minded about looking at them, but there needs to be a discussion that has support in Northern Ireland widely and across the Executive.
We will continue to work closely with the Opposition, the Executive and the parties in Northern Ireland to deliver on the wider promises of our New Decade, New Approach agreement and its commitments for the people of Northern Ireland, including ensuring that we are levelling up as we build back better across the whole United Kingdom. We are resolute—I will continue to be personally resolute and determined—in promoting Northern Ireland’s place in the world, its opportunity and its integral place in and importance to the United Kingdom. In doing so, we will ensure that, with New Decade, New Approach and its commitments, we deliver for all people in Northern Ireland, through New Decade, New Approach and beyond. I commend the Bill to the House.
Labour helped to secure the precious Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and it remains one of our proudest political legacies. We therefore welcome attempts to safeguard power sharing and improve the sustainability of the Executive, the Assembly and the institutions, which collapsed following a political crisis and took three years to restart.
In Committee and on Report, we outlined at length our concerns about some of the flaws that we saw in the Bill and sought to correct. It is disappointing that those concerns have not been taken on board, particularly as they are likely to be tested sooner or later.
The instability in recent months has been unsettling for all of us who cherish the Good Friday agreement and who believe that its institutions and the principles that underpin it represent the best way forward for Northern Ireland. As ever, that instability has been most keenly felt by the people of Northern Ireland.
Power sharing is the scaffolding of peace. Without it, the Good Friday agreement is fundamentally undermined. It is integral to the trust that communities have in the post-Good Friday agreement landscape, and it underpins the devolution of the powers contained in it. We should not forget the evidence given by Jon Tonge, who reminded us that devolution of power remains overwhelmingly popular: he said that when voters have been asked “What is your preferred mode of governance?”,
“direct rule has never come above 15% as a preferred option. Devolved power sharing is overwhelmingly a preferred option that comes back from…surveys”.––[Official Report, Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Public Bill Committee,
People in Northern Ireland are emerging from one of the most profound health crises that it has ever faced. A third of the entire population are languishing on health waiting lists, nearly 300 children are without a post-primary place for next year’s term and people are recovering from the deepest recession on record. In that scenario, it is unthinkable not to have a functioning Executive. For all political leaders in Northern Ireland, that must be the priority in the coming days and weeks.
It is partly for that reason that the Labour party supports the Bill, but our broader concern relates to the time it has taken to bring the Bill to this stage. We strongly urge the Government to look at how they can fast-track the remainder of its passage. It has now been 22 months since they agreed to implement this legislation to preserve power sharing, and we fear that they are sleepwalking towards a political crisis.
It is also disgraceful that the Secretary of State previously said that we would expect a cultural package and an Irish language Act by the end of October 2021—
The House was promised the commissioning of an Irish language Act by the end of October 2021. That is where we are now, and it is nowhere to be seen. The Secretary of State’s refusal to give a date is a disgrace, and a betrayal of the people of Northern Ireland.
This legislation has simply come too late to address the current political instability in Northern Ireland. Given the political crisis there, and the ongoing warnings about the collapse of the Executive, Labour pushed for amendments to ensure that it was implemented without delay. As it stands, even if it were passed before Christmas there would still be a months-long commencement clause, leaving it highly unlikely to be in force to prevent instability in the coming months. We would like to hear a firm commitment from the Secretary of State to fast-tracking it through the House of Lords, and a clear timetable for it being enacted. We cannot wait months when we may have weeks. Will the Secretary of State address that? If so, we will work with him to ensure that the Bill is on the statute book within weeks.
The instability that the Bill in part attempts to address has not emerged out of thin air, and I fear that the delay in bringing it forward is symptomatic of the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland. Too often over the past decade, Northern Ireland has been an afterthought here. As the consequences of decisions taken by Ministers have played out in Northern Ireland, the Government have frequently behaved as though they had found themselves at the scene of an accident entirely beyond their control. Too often, Northern Ireland has been overlooked and the work to deliver on the promise of peace has been allowed to stall.
It would be foolish to assume that the provisions of the Bill alone can guarantee stability; they cannot. To do that, Ministers must address the effects of their own actions, which have shaken faith in Northern Ireland. Progress has stalled and instability has grown. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement has been treated as a crisis management tool, rather than as the vehicle through which lives and communities can be transformed.
Although Labour supports the Bill, we believe that there are several missed opportunities for the Government to refocus on delivering on the promise of peace, which they have allowed to stall. A Bill of Rights, integrated education and housing, women’s rights and giving communities a real say in decision making were the essence of the Good Friday agreement and the shared future that it imagined, but progress on them has been virtually non-existent over the past decade. We do not believe that the instability we see can be separated from the failure to deliver on such commitments. Above all, the way to guarantee stability is to demonstrate that commitments made will be honoured, and that Westminster is still prepared to step up and honour our side of the bargain.
I reiterate our support for the limited measures in the Bill and ask the Secretary of State to speed up the timetable as a matter of urgency, but I wish to make it clear that this is only a start: there is much, much more work to be done.
I welcome the Minister to his position, and look forward to working with him. Let me also add my thanks to all who have contributed to the Bill’s passage. Securing a prosperous, peaceful and well-governed Northern Ireland is obviously in the interests of everyone there, but it is also hugely in the interests of everyone throughout these islands, and I believe that the Bill contributes to that in its own small way.
I will try to keep my remarks comparatively brief. Let me say first that democratic politics, wherever it takes place, needs its participants and practitioners to have space in which to talk, discuss, reflect and consult, and, above all, freedom to take the risks involved in finding consensus, acknowledging common ground, and doing the heavy lifting of finding agreement. While deadlines and ultimatums obviously have their place in politics, I think the wider community is much better served when we see that heavy lifting going on, and the better, more secure and sustainable outcomes to which it leads. However, it is not just politics in the abstract that needs space; it is also the business of government.
Any decision taken through the institutions of Northern Ireland is almost certain to be better than any decision that can ever be taken on behalf of Northern Ireland in this place, simply because it will be rooted in those democratic institutions and moulded to the contours of public opinion through the politicians whom we elect, and because it makes local decision makers in Northern Ireland more accountable for the choices they have been elected to make; and the politics is all the more transparent and healthy for it. That is what happens when we give the politics the space in which to work.
To the extent that today’s proceedings help to remove some of the time pressures caused by the need to fill ministerial positions or to form an Administration, we support the Bill. Obviously having Ministers in office without their positions being confirmed by a current electoral mandate is not ideal, but it does provide continuity in caretaker form, and efficient governance in the absence of an Executive when it comes to dealing with everyday matters. I believe that the Bill has the potential to enhance transparency, accountability and at least the opportunities for good governance, and on that basis it has our support.
Like other Members on both sides of the House, I desire a stable Stormont and a Stormont that offers good government to the people of Northern Ireland. Indeed, I am sure everyone who is present today shares that desire.
When the institutions were torn down by Sinn Féin in early 2017, 1 was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The new Assembly had embarked on a fresh mandate with many promises to tackle the huge waiting lists, but unfortunately Sinn Féin, for the sake of its own selfish, narrow political agenda, shattered the hopes of that Assembly, and they were extinguished. Three years followed that have seen our public services degenerate. The legacy of Martin McGuiness’s resignation is seen to this day: longer waiting lists, a health service that is stretched beyond its limits, a social housing crisis, a roads infrastructure that is crumbling, missed investment opportunities for job creation, and other public services held back.
Of course, for those three years the Government did nothing to face down the petulant, self-serving actions of Sinn Féin, which is deeply regrettable. A kid-glove approach was adopted when it came to confronting Sinn Féin and its reckless actions, and sadly we remain under this threat, for we know that the Government have stated that if the cultural package contained in “New Decade, New Approach” is not delivered to Sinn Féin’s timetable, it will be brought through in this place.
Let me urge the Government to exercise extreme caution in this regard. If they are serious about letting elected representatives govern Northern Ireland, it simply cannot continue to be the case that when agreement cannot be reached or takes longer than one party may wish—and the established trend is that the party jumped to is Sinn Féin—the Government take the powers back to this place. That is the recipe for instability, and it is also the fuel that fires the growing disenchantment and disillusionment in the Unionist community with the whole Stormont edifice.
The Secretary of State knows of the deep hurt many people felt in Northern Ireland when the Government chose to intervene in the provision of abortion. A matter that was so profound to so many people, and on which agreement could well have been reached given time and space, was brought back to this place to placate the pro-abortion lobby and the pro-abortion parties for whom these services could not be delivered quickly enough.
This pick-and-choose devolution settlement only leads to discontent and disillusionment. It makes people ask what is the point of devolution if the Government intervene when the agenda of some must be satisfied. We can strengthen the legislative framework to make the institutions more stable through this Bill, but the greatest threat of instability to the institutions comes from a people that sees no point in them.
In this context, the necessity is for the Government to act to resolve the widespread community concern about the Northern Ireland protocol. Time is moving on, and the patience of this party and the people is not without limit; indeed, it is stretched to breaking point right now. Promises of progress, of conclusions in weeks, are just talk. Let us see the action that is needed to ensure that political stability is restored to Northern Ireland and the damaging impact of this disastrous protocol for all the people of Northern Ireland is consigned to the past.
I entirely agree with what the hon. Lady said about the fact that Sinn Féin should never have pulled the Assembly down, and about the implications of that for our health service and our public sector in general. Now she has moved on to the threat from the Democratic Unionist party over the protocol. If she does not believe that any political party should threaten the institutions of the Good Friday agreement and the outworking of that, which is good government and good public services, will she speak to her party leader and ask him to withdraw his threat to those institutions?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the protocol is damaging everyone within Northern Ireland, both economically and constitutionally, and I would ask him to go and speak to the businesses that are being impacted on a daily basis by the protocol. It certainly undermines the delicate balances of the agreement.
I have listened to the remarks from the hon. Members for North Down (Stephen Farry) and for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), and I am sure that I am not alone in finding it somewhat ironic that those parties that hold the Belfast agreement as some form of religious text have sought so hard to change some of its underpinning elements. We see this in the attempts to change the appointment of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and to change community designation, and in the quest to reform the petition of concern mechanisms, all of which were created and championed by those who now wish to do away with the old and bring in the new for their own political advantage. We in Northern Ireland are well used to the hypocrisy and double standards of the Alliance party and the SDLP, which are there for all to see in their amendments today.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point about the views of business being heard during this further stage of negotiation and consultation with regard to the protocol. She is right on that, but I am failing to understand why tearing down Stormont and removing the voices of elected local representatives to make their case would help those businesses.
The hon. Member will know that we have not done that. We want this Government to act on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. Lord Frost and his colleagues have heard clearly about the need to act and the damage that this is doing economically and constitutionally, and the hon. Member would do well to listen to the people of Northern Ireland and not just take it for granted that he is aware of their views.
I reiterate that if this Government continue to placate Sinn Féin’s ransom demands by legislating in this place to satisfy them, devolution will fail. Furthermore, if the provisions of the Belfast agreement around cross-community consent and our constitutional position continue to be set aside in the context of the future relationship between the UK and the EU pertaining to Northern Ireland, devolution will fail. Regardless of this Bill, the next few weeks will test the Government on their commitment to stable devolution in Northern Ireland.
When we last debated this Bill in June, the context was that Sinn Féin had just threatened the collapse of the institutions. Fast forward back to groundhog day, and we are here again with the DUP dangling the future of those same institutions before us. The context of both those threats is the same: the pandemic is still rampant, there are issues in the education service, we have the worst health waiting lists in these islands by a mile, and, without a climate change plan, Northern Ireland is a laggard with no binding targets at all. That seesaw of instability and stop-start governance is the last decade and a half in microcosm, with each of the two lead parties replicating the same tactics and threats, and criticising each other for doing the same, with each particular episode draining away the confidence and belief of the people of Northern Ireland in power sharing.
I fear that, with this Bill, we have missed some of the opportunities to improve governance, cohesion and the sense of possibility that the institutions were based on. For all that the letter and spirit of the Good Friday agreement have been invoked in recent years, either for or against Brexit and the protocol, that spirit of power sharing and genuinely working the common ground in the interests of people in Northern Ireland through mutual endeavour are quite absent from today’s Assembly. In our amendments in Committee and today, the SDLP brought forward practical suggestions to try to improve the atmosphere and improve governance. We have been very clear—this was echoed by a number of witnesses in Committee—that no amount of rules and regulations will force the parties to share power properly unless they truly believe that it is the right thing to do, but it is appropriate that we should try to improve the mechanisms involved. The Good Friday agreement always allowed for that level of evolution, and that is something the SDLP has supported before—for example, in the introduction of opposition provisions.
It is a fact that the Good Friday agreement was negotiated by the widest possible range of political voices, that it was put to the people and that the people in the north and south of Ireland endorsed it. The St Andrews changes, which include a lot of the flaws, were not endorsed in that way. They were negotiated by, and for, the two large parties and imposed without recourse to the people of the island, and that shows. The flaws in the election of the First Ministers are illustrative of the rot and the culture of mistrust in the Assembly. There has been much discussion in recent months about the concept of parallel consent, when in fact the election of joint First Ministers, as was, is the centrepiece of parallel consent and the most real example of it in strand 1.
In the early years of the Assembly, the First Ministers were elected from the Floor of the Assembly by a majority of all present and both designations. That allowed for cross-party consensus building and coalition building, which have disappeared in the last decade and a half. That was done to spare the blushes of the larger parties because they did not want to be seen to be endorsing each other in the voting Lobby, but that has had, and continues to have, a knock-on effect on the wider political discourse. We know that leadership in any organisation comes from the top, and it is the same in Northern Ireland. These changes, which we have tried to address through amendments, will allow each Assembly election to be reduced to a first-past-the-post race to become top dog, even though, as others have pointed out, one cannot even order paperclips without the say-so of the other. This will serve to suck all the oxygen out of the political discussion and allow every other issue to drain away.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is beneficial for the good people of Northern Ireland to have a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly rather than getting edicts from here in Westminster. Does she agree that it was even more destabilising for Northern Ireland when the UK Government, as part of the Brexit deal, signed a Northern Ireland protocol that they had no intention of honouring? Is that not even worse for the people of Northern Ireland?
I agree entirely. Among the many things that we discussed under the Good Friday agreement, the primacy of the rule of law and of trust are contained in that as well. They have gone out of the window in recent months, which is having a knock-on effect in Northern Ireland.
I regret that our amendments were not adopted, but the mechanisms that we tried to insert into the Bill were around that sense of joint purpose and common endeavour, as well as accountability. When the First Ministers were elected by the MLAs, they were accountable to the MLAs. The failures of the current process became very clear when Members of the Assembly tried to hold to account Ministers who had been responsible for terrible governance failures in the renewable heat incentive scheme. It became very clear that the First Minister did not feel that she was accountable to the Assembly, and indeed, due to those changes, she was not.
It is also worth saying that the mechanisms that we proposed would have been compatible with an overdue review of designation. I very much agree with the point raised by, among others, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee that, as currently operated, the designation structures for people opting to be nationalist, Unionist or other are locking in sectarianism. They were very well-intentioned; they were designed to manage a traditional conflict between two traditional communities, but Northern Ireland has evolved and it is appropriate that we should look to evolve those structures as well.
The Minister referred to the Bill being New Decade, New Approach, no more and no less. It is a missed opportunity, but it is worth saying that it includes some things that I do not remember from New Decade, New Approach, including the removal of key phrases and mechanisms from the ministerial code of conduct. It is still not clear who had problems with the language on transparency and accountability as it stood in the original agreement and in the 1998 Act, but I use that as an illustrative example that it is not a faithful transcription of the New Decade, New Approach all-party agreement and therefore other mechanisms could have been advanced.
Although we agree with the thrust of the Bill, we are beset and bedevilled by a culture of veto and stand-off, and this would have been an appropriate opportunity to try to fix some of those things. For example, to the best of my knowledge, the Assembly has not delivered a single piece of equality legislation. I listened to hon. Members speaking about why we could not pass equality legislation, in this case in the form of language legislation, because there is so much to do on health and education. There is no doubt about that, but those same parties have been running the show for a decade and a half, and in many cases they hold the specific ministerial briefs about which they speak. Every other region of these islands is able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Equality provisions can be advanced while meaningfully delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.
I agree entirely, as the Assembly is supposed to be local power in local hands. The culture of telling people that sharing is losing is a big part of the problem that we have today. That opportunity is still on the table, and my hon. Friend Colum Eastwood tried in Committee to introduce such legislation through an amendment that faithfully transcribes what was agreed by all parties, including the Democratic Unionist party.
Sustainability and stability will not come from rules and regulations; they will come from people understanding and believing that power sharing is the right thing to do, and not just doing it because the law makes them do it. It will come from London and Dublin operating together again as friends and equals on the basis of transparency and trust, and it will come when the powers of devolution are used meaningfully to change people’s lives and not just as a way of moving from actual conflict to a culture war, as we have had. There are opportunities to improve that governance, and we have not taken them today, but my hon. Friend and I will be ready to have that conversation.
This Bill had its genesis in New Decade, New Approach, and we are here today to try to make progress. As its name implies, we are trying to build for the remainder of this decade.
We are less likely to repeat the mistakes of the past if we can learn from that past, and the problem is twofold. First, it is repeated ad nauseam in this House and elsewhere that peace broke out in Northern Ireland in 1998, but the reality and the lesson we should learn is that for the preceding four years the terrorists slowly and gradually learned that terrorism was not the way to proceed. In 1994, four years before the agreement was signed, the terrorists decided that the game was up and that terror was no longer how they would proceed. That was good and long overdue, but people should not misinterpret 1998 as the beginning of peace. The terrorists decided to depart from terrorism gradually and slowly in the preceding years.
Unfortunately, more mistakes were made in 1998. Agreement was necessary and required, and we had all strived for many years to achieve agreement, but in 1998 the terrorists were allowed to be at the table without giving up their guns—some of us said that should not be the case. I can well understand the reasons for their entering the process, but I disagree with them none the less.
We entered into a system that has plagued politics in Northern Ireland from then until now, in which there can be no move forward unless everyone buys into the process. We had the years up to St Andrews and beyond to try to inch people beyond only moving at the pace of the slowest learner in the room. That was the problem, and thankfully we made some progress at St Andrews. Hopefully we will now make further progress as a result of New Decade, New Approach, but how do we embed that in Northern Ireland’s society? How do we depart from the issues that have plagued us for so long when a single party can up sticks and leave, as Sinn Féin did, and bring down the whole system for three years?
We now have a prolonged period. There may be a difference of opinion on how long that period should be, but at least it should help to concentrate minds for longer than seven days whenever Sinn Féin engineers a crisis. The then Deputy First Minister was clearly unwell, and everyone could see the degree of his illness, and the ensuing crisis that had been engineered lasted for three years. Hopefully we have a bit more time and good will now. We have bought a bit of extra time with New Decade, New Approach, but unless there is good will we will still face the same problem.
Single parties must realise that, for the greater good, we have to try to move together with some form of consensus. No one is going to get everything they want, which is why many of us said about NDNA, “There are things in this that we don’t particularly like, but for the greater good we will buy into the process.” The Government should not take that and say, “We will implement part of NDNA and leave other parts of it on the shelf.” That cannot and will not work. We have to bring matters to a head, as we said we would. It is not a matter of bringing down the system, as has been inaccurately reported in the Chamber today. We are bringing matters to a head, not bringing them down, to try to force an election rather than to destroy the institutions.
My party will support the Bill with whatever reservations we have, and I hope that we can build a future in Northern Ireland that is better than our past.
Like the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone, we keep coming back to the phrases and mantras mentioned by my hon. Friend Carla Lockhart: “We must support the Belfast agreement, provided it is our interpretation of the Belfast agreement.” The two-faced approach from some hon. Members, who say we must support the Belfast agreement and never change it while tabling amendments to change it, is not lost on anyone back home.
I do not often quote Claire Hanna, but I agreed with her wholeheartedly when she said that she wishes to support the locked-in sectarianism of the Belfast agreement. Think of it, we are discussing measures that a Member of this Parliament—
No, I will not. The hon. Lady had a good opportunity to make a speech. It may not have been her finest moment, but she has made a speech and I think I am entitled to take that speech apart, which she has made very easy for me. She wishes to support the locked-in sectarianism of the Belfast agreement, and it is incredible that she is asking this House to do that. That follows closely on the heels of the previous Member for Foyle—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If Members are referring to content, they should quote me accurately. I said that the current designation structures, as operated, were locking in sectarianism. Is it appropriate for Members to misquote other Members?
I thank the hon. Lady for that point of order. It is important that Members do not misquote other Members; that is very important indeed. The hon. Lady has made her point. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman feels that he has misinterpreted her words, he will respond, or he may feel that the clarification that she has just given has put what she said on the record.
Of course, this is not the first time that Social Democratic and Labour party Members have opposed the Belfast agreement and called for changes when it suits them. The previous Member for Foyle talked about the “ugly scaffolding” that surrounded the Belfast agreement—
I am never frightened to give way, while others are, and the Member knows that, so he should not worry about that. I will give way in a moment. The SDLP Members are getting particularly ratty now, because some of the points that have been made are being put back to them—that they are supporting an inherently flawed agreement. Many in Northern Ireland want to get to normal, democratic politics. One reason why we have the problems that have been highlighted today and why we have the problems that necessitate the Bill is that we do not have fundamentally democratic institutions in operation in Northern Ireland. I would love to see those institutions come into place.
Some of the amendments that have been tabled are about keeping in place and reinforcing the sectarian nature of the agreements. For example, we are told that the petition of concern is there to protect minorities, and that provided that that minority is a nationalist minority, that petition of concern should be retained, but whenever some people believe that at some point in future it may be a Unionist minority, the petition of concern better be done away with pretty quickly, because we would not want that Unionist minority on the island of Ireland having protections and rights. That is not lost on many people outside this House.
Does Colum Eastwood still want to intervene?
I would love to—if I can remember the hon. Member’s point. I thank him for giving way. On his point about the former Member for Foyle, of course, he negotiated the Good Friday agreement when the hon. Gentleman and his party were standing outside with placards, shouting and cheering. By the way, they were shouted down by the people of Ireland and the people of Northern Ireland, who voted massively in favour of the Good Friday agreement. Of course, the hon. Gentleman’s party has been implementing the Good Friday agreement ever since it did the thing at St Andrews. You talked about the petition of concern—
I think the point is not lost on anyone watching that the Member has lost.
Let me turn to some of the issues that have been raised. People have talked today about threats to the institutions—threats that they might be brought down by the Democratic Unionist party. Of course, when the Justice Minister made it clear on Radio Ulster that she did not find it comfortable being in the Northern Ireland Executive and might leave it, that was not characterised as a threat to the institution. It is amazing that when one does one thing, it is characterised in one way, but if anyone else from a different tradition indicates their concerns about the institutions, it is suddenly characterised as a threat to democracy and to the process, when it is no such thing. The fact of the matter is that the Unionist people of Northern Ireland have rights and expect their Unionist politicians to defend those rights, and we will defend their rights. No matter what the cost and no matter what the price, those rights will be defended, come what may.
The current hon. Member for Foyle made the point that the Justice Minister could not be someone from the nationalist tradition. I would make the point, which is not lost on anyone, that the last time there was a Unionist Justice Minister was in 1971—
Unionists are not allowed—[Interruption.] Well, David Ford, I do not think he was—
She is an independent. There was no one brought from the main Unionist party into the Justice Department, because the nationalist parties would object to that and not allow it to take place. It is very clear to all those who see that what suits one party at one time will only be used provided that it does not encourage or support the Unionist tradition. That is why there are many objections.
People from Northern Ireland will look on at this—I will use the phrase fiddling while Rome burns. Some people may think that more attractive than others do, but I certainly do not. Many people know that a torpedo has been fired at the Northern Ireland institutions and it is outside the control of the Unionist parties and nationalist parties operating in the Assembly, and that torpedo is, of course, the Northern Ireland protocol. Until and unless the Government in this place resolve themselves to do what they said in their Command Paper in July this year, that torpedo will eventually hole those institutions below the line. When that happens, no amount of hand-wringing in this place and no amount of declaring one’s dying loyalty to whatever interpretation of the Belfast agreement people feel they wish to support will salvage those institutions.
I urge the Government to move immediately—now—and to do what they should have done by invoking article 16 of the protocol and resolving that issue once and for all. Otherwise, we will continue to have the cherry-picking that we have seen in this place, with one party wanting the language provisions, another party wanting to address the issues to do with abortions and another party then wanting something else. That will go on in an infernal circle for all to see. I encourage the Government to move on that protocol, and to move immediately.
With the leave of the House, I shall briefly sum up. I again thank all colleagues in the House. We have seen throughout today’s discussions, both on Report and on Third Reading, a good, wide range of subjects covered. To build on the point made by the Minister of State, some of those points were about the Bill, which relates to the New Decade, New Approach deal, and I want to touch on them.
As was welcomed when we started deliberations on the Bill, it is the first Bill relating to Northern Ireland that the House has had a chance to consider without operating under emergency processes for some time. As we have seen, we have had a chance to have a good, wide discussion about the issues in the Bill. That is a good thing and has allowed people the opportunity to air and talk about issues that go beyond what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach. As I said earlier, I look forward to continuing those discussions and seeing whether we can find some agreement across all the parties in the Executive to move things forward together.
I say gently to those colleagues who have raised issues as things to be amended today—I make this point to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, Alex Davies-Jones—that when we talk about making sure that we work through consensus and move things forward together in Northern Ireland, that means having all the parties come to an agreement, not just rushing into doing things today. It is right that we have these discussions.
On the package and questions raised by the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Simon Hoare, and others, it is disappointing to see the Opposition, in a well-informed debate that has been good and well-mannered in large part, looking to play politics around these issues. Let us be clear that the cultural package will include a new office for identity and cultural expression, to promote cultural pluralism and inclusion across all identities and cultures, alongside commissioners to protect and enhance the Irish language and develop the language, arts and literature with the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition in Northern Ireland. We have already been making progress on those things. When the hon. Member for Pontypridd speaks at the Dispatch Box, she may want to make sure that she has done some research. To help her out, I suggest that she looks back to the written ministerial statement from
No—the hon. Lady spoke earlier.
We have already delivered £2 million-worth of a funding package announced earlier this year, including for Northern Ireland Screen’s Irish language broadcast fund and the Ulster-Scots broadcast fund. We will continue to deliver on that, stand by our word and make sure that the cultural package is delivered within the mandate, but this Bill relates to the New Decade, New Approach deal and I look forward to seeing its progress continue in the weeks and months ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.