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Northern Ireland: Political Developments — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 3:46 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 3:46 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement about political developments in Northern Ireland. First, I welcome back the honourable Member for Gedling as shadow Secretary of State. I hope that we can continue the constructive working relationship we had when he last held this important post. With that in mind, the new Labour leader and the shadow Chancellor are on record many times as expressing their support for a united Ireland. That is an entirely legitimate view, as is the clearly held preference on these Conservative Benches that our country stays together and Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. It would be helpful for the shadow Secretary of State to confirm when he responds today that, under his party’s new leadership, the consent principle at the heart of the Belfast agreement will remain paramount.

Last week we started a new round of cross-party talks focused on two issues: the continued presence of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland and the pressing need to implement the Stormont House agreement. The talks began on Tuesday with a meeting of all the participants, at which everyone agreed that these two issues needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency, although views differed on the sequence in which they should be considered. On Wednesday morning, the Police Service of Northern Ireland arrested three well-known members of the republican movement, including the northern chairman of Sinn Fein, in connection with their ongoing investigation into the murder of Kevin McGuigan. It would not be appropriate to comment on a live police investigation, save to say that all three were subsequently released unconditionally. These developments had dramatic political consequences.

On Thursday evening, Peter Robinson announced that DUP Ministers, with the exception of Finance Minister Arlene Foster, were resigning from the Northern Ireland Executive. The First Minister himself has stepped aside, with Mrs Foster taking over the functions of that office for a period of six weeks. That does not trigger an early Assembly election—that would only happen if either the First Minister or Deputy First Minister were to resign. Nor does it mean suspension of the institutions or a return to direct rule—that would require primary legislation at Westminster, which is not something that the Government believe would be justified in the current circumstances. It does not mean that the Assembly and the Executive cease to function, but the situation is very grave.

A number of departments are left without ministerial leadership and relationships between the parties have almost completely broken down. That leaves the devolved institutions looking increasingly dysfunctional. Over recent days, I have been maintaining close contact with the five main Northern Ireland parties and with the Irish Government, and I have kept the Prime Minister constantly updated on the situation. Yesterday, I held a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings at Stormont, aimed at establishing a basis for further intensive talks. I plan to hold further such discussions at Stormont tomorrow and in the days ahead.

The events I have outlined do not alter the fundamental issues that need to be resolved. First, the brutal murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan have brought into sharp focus the continuing problems around the existence of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, and the involvement of some of their members in criminality and organised crime. The Government are clear that paramilitary organisations have no place in a democratic society. They were never justified in the past, they are not justified now and we all need to work together to find a way to bring to an end this continuing blight on Northern Ireland society. The Government are working with the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive on how to achieve that goal.

For example, serious consideration needs to be given to whether the time is right to re-establish a body along the lines of the Independent Monitoring Commission. The remit the parties might wish to give such a body is likely to be very different from the matters addressed by the original IMC, reflecting changed circumstances. But there might well be scope for such a body to play a part in providing greater community confidence and repairing working relationships within the Executive. The Government will also actively consider whether there is more that we can do to support efforts to tackle organised crime and cross-border crime in Northern Ireland. In the days to come, we will continue to listen carefully to representations made to us on the best way to ensure that all parties can engage in this process.

The second issue on the agenda is just as important as the first. Resolving the differences which have been blocking the implementation of the Stormont House agreement is crucial if the finances of the Executive are to be placed on a sustainable footing. Without welfare reform and steps to tackle in-year budget pressures, there is a real danger that the executive departments could start running out of money, becoming steadily less able to pay their bills, with the serious negative impact that could have on front-line public services. As we have seen in those parts of Europe where Governments are unable to control their debts and live within their means—some of which are supported by the new leader of the Labour party—it is the vulnerable and most disadvantaged who suffer most in such situations. We have therefore made clear that if these matters are not dealt with by the parties, as a last resort the Government would have to legislate here at Westminster—a position on which I hope we would have we would have the support of the honourable Member for Gedling.

As things stand, every day that passes is likely to see the devolved institutions become less and less able to function effectively. We have limited time, so once again I urge all parties to engage intensively and with focus, determination and good will in the talks under way. We on these Benches, and I hope the whole House, continue to give our full support to the Belfast agreement and the institutions it created. There can be no doubt that power-sharing, inclusive government comes with its frustrations and difficulties—indeed, I hear about them every day—but as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister often reminds this House, the Northern Ireland political settlement was a huge achievement. It has transformed life in Northern Ireland for the better and it is an awe-inspiring example of what can be achieved with political leadership and vision. On so many occasions in the past 20 years, Northern Ireland’s politicians have come together to achieve the seemingly impossible. It is time to do so again, so that we can continue on the road to a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland. I commend this Statement to the House”.

Photo of Lord McAvoy Lord McAvoy Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords) 3:54 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, I open by thanking the Government for giving previous sight of the Secretary of State’s Statement. I also place on record the Official Opposition’s gratitude for the welcome given to Vernon Coaker on his return as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. That has been echoed by many parties and individuals in Northern Ireland, who have contacted the honourable Member to welcome him back.

I also place on record the bipartisan approach of many in this House who have been involved in Northern Ireland for a long time: the noble Lords, Lord Brooke, Lord King and Lord Trimble, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, a former Member of the House. Many other people contributed to a bipartisan approach in this House, and it has always been welcome. As was made clear by Vernon Coaker in the other House, it is the intention of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, as well as the noble Lord’s intention—and, I add, mine—to pursue a bipartisan approach based on the agreement reached, in particular the principle of consent.

I have some questions for the Minister. Can he reassure all of us that the full authority of the British Government, working with the Irish Government and with Washington, will be used to help to resolve these difficulties along with the parties in Northern Ireland? The current problems of political stability revolve around continuing paramilitary activity and the implementation of the Stormont House agreement. Following the recent murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said that some Provisional IRA organisational structures still exist, but for a radically different purpose from before, although some members still engage in criminal activity. Can the Minister explain what that statement means, and can he explain the Secretary of State’s assessment of what that means for communities? Can he also update the House on the investigation by the PSNI into the two murders mentioned? Is he confident that sufficient resources exist?

Does the Minister further agree that, with respect to paramilitary activity, we need to end ambiguity on this issue? Can he update us on the assessment of the level of paramilitary activity in all communities, the threat that it poses and what is being done to combat it? Does he agree that supporting a more comprehensive approach across all departments and agencies would be beneficial? The rule of law must be paramount; there can be no compromise on this principle. The parties in the Northern Ireland Executive are all committed to this principle, but in the light of the Secretary of State’s Statement to the House last week in respect of the Independent Monitoring Commission, can the Minister update us on the current position, as I understand that the Secretary of State is considering it? If so, what does she mean and what is her thinking?

Regarding implementation of the Stormont House agreement, the agreement was a tremendous achievement by all those involved. The Prime Minister has referred generously on more than one occasion to the achievements of Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Northern Ireland peace settlement known as the Good Friday agreement. The Stormont House agreement has clear proposals on finance and welfare, on difficult issues such as flags, identity, culture and tradition, parades and dealing with the past, as well as institutional reform. Those are many, if not all, of the hugely challenging and difficult issues arising in the context of Northern Ireland, with its different traditions, but there we got a negotiated agreement to move forward on those matters, not to leave them as being too difficult to resolve or would somehow cure themselves. There was a desire to tackle them. There was courageous political leadership, including the involvement of many in this Chamber today.

Does the Minister agree with me that the prize of successfully implementing the agreement should be another historic milestone? Does he agree that it takes forward the peace process to say that we have brought about a substantially better Northern Ireland, but now is the time to deal with many of the issues arising from the different traditions and competing narratives, as well as legacy issues around victims, mental health, economic insecurity and poverty?

On what basis will the Secretary of State propose to help to break the impasse on welfare reform? Are there other ways to support vulnerable people with targeted Treasury money to help with, for example, mental health or economic insecurity, both of which are significant legacy issues? Does the Minister further accept that, to break the deadlock, the same proposals cannot be put forward time and time again. Although we all understand that Northern Ireland should not be treated as a special case, there are in Northern Ireland special circumstances. What progress has been made with any Bill to implement the Stormont House Agreement? Is there a timescale and is there a legislative slot available? People will feel let down if bodies designed to deal with legacy issues cannot be set up.

I conclude by confirming yet again the attitude of bipartisanship on policy and strategy of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition that we have maintained all through this difficult period.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating this Statement, which does not seem to take us much further down the road from the events of last week. That is a little disappointing. There have been relationship breakdowns between power-sharing parties on and off now for a number of years, and we lurch from semi-crisis to crisis all too often. The poor electors of Northern Ireland must be getting utterly disheartened by the bad behaviour of some of their leaders. Do the Government agree that there is a need to address paramilitaries of all kinds, whether unionist or nationalist, and that there must not be any relationship between democratically elected politicians and paramilitary organisations?

The Statement says that the talks are focused on two issues: paramilitarism and the implementation of the Stormont House agreement. Are the Government content that tackling these two issues will be enough to break the cycle of crises that has befallen the Northern Ireland Executive in recent years? Is there not merit in taking a wider view, including consideration of institutional structures and processes that prevent the kind of political progress that is required if public services are to be maintained?

Do the Government have a view on whether the actions of these Ministers in recent days amount to a breach of the pledge of office that all Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive are required to take? They pledge to,

“discharge in good faith all the duties of office”,

and to,

“participate fully in the Executive Committee, the North/South Ministerial Council, and the British-Irish Council”.

The structures of Northern Ireland are in grave danger of not working for much longer. That would be tragic for the people of Northern Ireland, who have rightly enjoyed the peace that was predicated on the Good Friday agreement 17 years ago. They want a stable society, and it is up to the Government, both here and there, to deliver that to them.

Last week, speaking on Northern Ireland in the previous Statement, I talked about the real problems the police in Northern Ireland face day in, day out. I was therefore very pleased to hear in the Statement that more work will be going on to support efforts to tackle organised crime and cross-border crime. That surely will mean more financial support for the police, who have lost so many officers in recent years. This past season has seen 45 police officers injured in civil disorders. If that happened here, we can imagine the sort of outcry that would ensue. Moreover, concessions should not be made to just one part of the power-sharing parties. They must be seen to be fair to all, and I urge the Government to ensure this.

The Statement says that the talks and negotiations are time-limited. On the one hand, the Statement says that time is limited, and with every day that passes, the devolved institutions are likely to be less able to function effectively. On the other hand, the Secretary of State appears to be telling the House that, rather than there being the intense, focused negotiations which she told us just last week were urgently needed, the furthest the discussions have reached thus far is a series of bilateral talks about talks. How do the Government believe that real urgency and momentum can be injected into the process to halt what appears to be a slide towards ever more gridlock?

On the relationship of the body along the lines of the Independent Monitoring Commission, have the Government given any consideration to the remit that such a body might have? The noble Lord mentioned that earlier. In addition to monitoring the activities of paramilitary organisations, might there be a role for that body, for example, to monitor the implementation by politicians of agreements reached between themselves, particularly those intended to address the legacy of the past? It is critical to reach the point where political agreements are not left to sit unimplemented, with all the damage that that does to public confidence in the political process.

If these vital talks are to be jointly shared by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Irish Government, can the Minister assure me that those relationships are strong and constructive? How often do meetings take place between them? If there is sufficient will to make these talks work, the problems confronting the Executive can and should be solved quickly.

Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

First, I thank the two noble Lords opposite for their contributions. I particularly welcome the confirmation from the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, that his party intends to continue a bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland and remains committed to the principle of consent. It is a great strength when we in this Parliament can demonstrate a bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland. Having said that, the current situation is undoubtedly grave. We remain totally committed to devolution in Northern Ireland. That is why my right honourable friend the Northern Ireland Secretary is holding intensive talks with the five parties, and why we urge all parties to engage with the talks process with focus, determination and, of course, good will.

Turning to specific issues raised by noble Lords, the first was that of full authority. I confirm that we will bring to bear the full authority of the UK Government in these talks, and will focus on implementation of the Stormont House agreement and the paramilitary activity. On the chief constable’s assessment, the Government agree with it but we would be cautious about expounding upon what is already in the public domain. On the ongoing PSNI investigation, again it would be unhelpful to speculate about that. It is not in the interests of justice. The police must be able to follow the evidence without fear or favour. On the issue of police resources, of course the PSNI needs the resources to discharge its very important responsibilities.

On the ambiguity issue that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, raised, there is no room for it here. There is no place for paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. They are a blight on society, they are not wanted and they should disband. On cross-agency working, yes, we see the need for agencies to work together and to involve community groups so that we can find a solution to the problems Northern Ireland faces. On the IMC, I do not want to prejudice what parties might propose as part of the talks process, but the Government recognise that such a body could play a role and any remit that such a body had would need to reflect the changed circumstances.

I was asked about Stormont House agreement implementation and legislation. As has already been said, the Stormont House agreement was a great achievement. It is very important that the UK Government deliver on their commitments, so we continue to work on the Bill. Our aim is to present to Parliament next month the legislation as planned.

On welfare reform and the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State made very clear that the Government will not fund a more generous Northern Ireland welfare system, but we have to recognise that funding already acknowledges Northern Ireland’s special circumstances. Northern Ireland’s spending per head is already 23% higher than the UK average and, of course, a key part of the Stormont House Agreement was the inclusion of £2 billion additional spending power. These talks need to be urgent, focused and intensive—talks that take weeks, not months—and we will work very closely with the Irish Government to get people round the table and find solutions to the problems Northern Ireland is facing.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 4:10 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, of course we want the bipartisan approach to continue, and of course we want the Good Friday Agreement and the institutions to be brought back as soon as possible, but I wonder if the Minister could clarify something. Surely there is a difference between criminality and paramilitary activity, even if the people who are alleged to have done it were former members of a paramilitary organisation. Are we not endangering Northern Ireland by suggesting that the tragic murder of Kevin McGuigan was definitely to do with paramilitary activity, when a lot of evidence suggests that it was ordinary—common or garden, very nasty—criminality?

Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

As I said earlier, we agree with the chief constable’s assessment that the Provisional IRA continues to exist organisationally although its purpose has radically changed. The noble Lord is absolutely right: the chief constable’s finding was individuals engaged in criminality for personal gain while the organisation itself is no longer involved in terrorism. We accept and agree with that assessment, and it is very much part of the priority for the talks process that we focus on the activity that is taking place. That will be a key priority for the talks

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, I begin by saying how delighted I was to hear the words of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, because there has been some concern in Northern Ireland about the forthcoming attitude of the Labour Party. We are most grateful for what he had to say.

Is the Minister aware that the Sinn Fein leadership gave a press conference at the weekend at which the northern chairman of that organisation described the evolution of the IRA as being from a caterpillar to a butterfly? Does the Minister agree that there could be no more appalling, outrageous and false analogy of the development of that organisation? Does he also agree that the members and victims who suffered at the hands of that organisation, and continue to suffer, were outraged, horrified and angered by such a statement? Can he assure the House that Her Majesty’s Government will not sweep issues like this under the carpet? The fundamental lie that was being propagated at that press conference is the reason why trust has been so undermined. Until that lie is confronted and separated out and dealt with from the rest of the day-to-day problems—such as the financial mismanagement on a massive scale that exists in Belfast—I believe we will have huge difficulty. Will he undertake to ensure that his right honourable friend in the other place is aware of this issue?

Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

I certainly undertake to make my right honourable friend in the other place aware of my noble friend’s comments. As I have said already, paramilitary activity of any kind is a blight on society and we need to deal with it and banish it from Northern Ireland. The other point I would make is that victims must absolutely be centre stage in everything we do.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, I share my noble friend Lord Empey’s appreciation of the position and comments of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. Have Her Majesty’s Government themselves reached the stage of having very different draft terms of reference for the possible substitute for the original Independent Monitoring Commission, and if so, are the Government encouraged by the reaction to them to date?

Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

Before replying to my noble friend’s question, I take this opportunity, on the eve of his retirement from this House, to pay tribute to the many years of public service he has given and his distinguished record as a former Northern Ireland Secretary.

Clearly, as I have said already, the IMC is very much an option for consideration. We do not want to prejudge what proposals the parties might put forward, but as I said earlier, the remit would be very different because the circumstances are very different.

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench

My Lords, I cannot prevent myself joining in the tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at such a difficult time and carried out the job with such distinction.

I very much welcome the tone of the Minister’s remarks today about the IMC and, indeed, the broad tone in the other place. As he rightly said, it cannot be a simple return of the IMC, and there is much discussion to be had about this. I shall put to the House the most profound reason why it is a good idea. Some months ago, Committee A of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly—on which the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and I serve, as do members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil—presented a report in the Dáil Éireann on these issues of criminality and cross-border smuggling and their relationship to politics. There was a good debate and a couple of good newspaper follow-up stories but ultimately, after that, Committee A’s report was forgotten about. It goes right to the heart of these matters of criminality. The return of the IMC would, tragically, not have stopped the two deaths that we have just seen. However, as I hope the Minister will agree, an open and honest discussion of issues relating to criminality and politics in Northern Ireland, such as we have tried to have in Committee A, would provide greater clarity and carry greater clout with the media. It can only be healthy. It would not have saved these two men’s lives or solve all problems, but it would be a contribution to a clear atmosphere. Yesterday, Mr Gerry Adams very helpfully said that he wants to address the unionist community and say something reassuring, and I do not dismiss that. I am glad that he at least said that. But there is no possibility that anything that he says can have any weight. The crucial thing is to have a new independent body that will have control of the media agenda. That is the great case for the return, in a modified form, of the IMC.

Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

The noble Lord brings great experience of these matters to this debate and I very much take on board what he has said. I will make sure that his points are reflected to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Conservative

Will my noble friend clarify the role of the Government of the Republic of Ireland in the discussions that are taking place?

Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

Obviously the Irish Government have a strong role in supporting these talks, and we work very closely with them in that. As participants in the Belfast agreement and as a Government who have commitments under the Stormont House agreement, they will be very much involved in these talks.

Photo of Lord Kilclooney Lord Kilclooney Crossbench

Will the Minister make perfectly clear the role of the southern Irish Government? In the Belfast agreement, there were three strands. The southern Irish Government were allowed to be involved only in strand 3. Does that continue to be the case?

Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

Our priority is getting the parties round the table because unless they are round the table we cannot have talks that will make progress. The priority of both Governments—and any influence that the US Government can bring to bear—is focused on getting all the parties round the table.

Photo of Lord Hay of Ballyore Lord Hay of Ballyore DUP

My Lords, I, too, very much welcome the Minister’s Statement on the current political crisis in Northern Ireland. I also welcome the statement to the House of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, to clarify the Labour Party’s position. In the last few days the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been meeting the five main political parties in Northern Ireland to find a way forward—in her own words, so that “intensive talks” can take place to address all the outstanding issues. Are we any closer to those talks taking place so that we can address all the issues, or are there still issues that need to be addressed by the individual parties to try to get them round the table?

Does the Minister also agree that if the institutions in Northern Ireland are to function effectively, paramilitary activity needs to be addressed once and for all? The island of Ireland is awash with criminality which has been going on for many years—both in the north and in the south. It is almost 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, yet we still have paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland that are still active, still killing and still involved in criminal activity.

In his Statement, the Minister talked about some sort of IMC body. I think we are in a different place and at a different time for which we need a different body. My only worry is that the ideas seem to have to come from the five main political parties—regarding the format, the powers and the terms of reference that such a body might have. Addressing that matter would be very useful because I can see it, too, turning into a political football in Northern Ireland. Would it not be better if the Minister and the Government would lead on and address those particular issues?

Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

I agree very much with what the noble Lord said about criminal paramilitary activity. As I have said previously, I do not think it would be helpful to provide a running commentary as talks proceed. The Secretary of State said in the other place that she will hold further talks tomorrow. We must see what transpires from those.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench

My Lords, the noble Baroness speaking from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench raised the question of whether some Ministers might be in breach of their oath of office. The Minister may not be able to answer today, right now, but could he at least ensure that legal advice is taken on that point?

Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

It is for the Ministers who have taken those actions to answer for them. We remain absolutely focused on getting the parties round the table and seeking a resolution to these difficult issues.