My Lords, the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill delivers key aspects of the December 2014 Stormont House agreement and the November 2015 fresh start agreement. I see our job here this evening as helping to ensure that these agreements are implemented and that another step is taken towards a more peaceful, prosperous and stable Northern Ireland where the devolved institutions continue to work for everyone and paramilitary activity is eradicated once and for all.
By way of context, the Stormont House agreement followed some 10 weeks of talks between the Government, the five largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Government on matters for which they have responsibility under the long-established three-stranded approach to Northern Ireland affairs. It dealt with many of the most difficult challenges facing Northern Ireland, including welfare reform, measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, improvements to the workings of devolution and new arrangements to examine long-standing issues such as flags and parading.
However, by last summer implementation of the Stormont House agreement—in particular, welfare reform—had stalled. This lack of agreement severely undermined the Executive’s finances, putting increasing pressure on funding for public services. This political and financial impasse was then compounded by two paramilitary murders in Belfast, precipitating a serious breakdown in Executive relations. Confronted by the very real risk of the devolved institutions collapsing and a return to direct rule, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland convened a further round of cross-party talks.
Following 10 weeks of discussion, on
The fresh start agreement is a very significant step forward on both counts. The agreement takes the Northern Ireland political parties further than ever before in their determination to see a complete end to paramilitary activity, placing obligations on Assembly Members to work together to rid society of paramilitary activity and to tackle organised crime. It helps to ensure the fiscal sustainability of the Executive, underpinned by up to half a billion pounds of extra spending power on top of the £2 billion in the Stormont House agreement. Crucially, it was instrumental in bringing to an end a crisis that had threatened the survival of the devolved institutions which have remained stable since 2007, the longest period of unbroken devolved government since the old Stormont Parliament was dissolved back in 1972.
Good progress has already been made in implementing the fresh start agreement. In November, this House considered and passed the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill and the accompanying Order in Council was passed in early December. A joint agency task force has been set up to tackle cross-jurisdictional organised crime, and a panel of respected figures, including the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has been appointed to consider the issue of continued paramilitary activity and to make recommendations on a strategy for disbanding paramilitary groups by the end of May. Work is also under way to appoint a new commission on flags and parades. The Assembly has passed legislation to make significant reforms to its institutions, reducing the number of Executive departments and Members of the Legislative Assembly. The implementation of the fresh start agreement is therefore proceeding apace and the Government, Executive and Irish Government have shown a real commitment to make the agreement work and deliver on their commitments.
This Bill is the UK Government’s next step towards full implementation of the fresh start agreement, and has the support of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which gave cross-party consent on
Those last two measures are of course linked to the timing of the forthcoming Assembly election. The Government are therefore seeking Parliament’s agreement for the Bill to proceed through its parliamentary scrutiny faster than usual to ensure that the enhanced pledge of office and new undertaking, as well as the extension of the time available for ministerial appointments, are in place in time for the Assembly’s return. I am grateful to the parties opposite for their support on this.
With noble Lords’ permission, before I turn in more detail to the measures in the Bill, I shall address an issue that formed an important part of the Fresh Start talks but which does not feature in this legislation: the establishment of new bodies to deal with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. I reassure noble Lords that this issue is of paramount importance to the Government, and it is clear that it is important to noble Lords from across the Chamber as well. In discussions that I have had in the run-up to today’s debate, many noble Lords have raised this issue. I have therefore written offering an open briefing session, to take place tomorrow afternoon. I hope to see many noble Lords there, and indeed the response has already been very positive.
The Government continue to believe that the provisions outlined in the Stormont House agreement, which themselves build upon the significant work that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, took forward in his role as co-chair of the Consultative Group on the Past, represent the best chance for dealing with the past in a way that will deliver significantly better outcomes for victims and survivors. Let us never forget that it was the victims and survivors who suffered more than anyone else as a result of the Troubles. The new institutions will therefore be balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable. They will allow Northern Ireland to move forward, and have the needs of victims and survivors at their heart. Intensive work therefore continues with victims’ representatives and others on finding a way to build the broad consensus needed to legislate. I hope very much that legislation to establish the legacy institutions in a separate Bill will be brought forward once the necessary consensus has been achieved.
I turn to the measures in the Bill before the House today. Clauses 1 to 5 relate to the independent reporting commission. The objective of this new commission will be to promote progress towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland. It will therefore fulfil an important role in furtherance of this Government’s commitment to challenging all paramilitary activity and associated criminality. The commission will be an international body, established through an agreement with the Irish Government. Work on the agreement is at an advanced stage and, once agreed with the new Irish Government, it will be laid before Parliament for scrutiny under the arrangements in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. It will be independent of the sponsoring Governments and will have a significant degree of discretion in fulfilling its functions, which are to report on progress towards ending paramilitary activity, including on implementation of measures taken by the Government, the Executive and the Irish Government to tackle paramilitarism, and to consult a wide range of stakeholders in fulfilling this role. The Bill also outlines both the legal privileges which the commission will enjoy and the duties under which it will operate. Further detail on the establishment and operation of the commission will be set out in secondary legislation in due course.
At this juncture I should also mention that last week I responded to the very helpful comments of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee on the Bill. I have placed a copy of my response in the House Library and have published it on the Northern Ireland Office website.
The Bill also amends the pledge of office for Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. The enhanced pledge reflects the commitments in the fresh start agreement to give unequivocal support for the rule of law and to work collectively to achieve a society free of paramilitarism. The Bill will also introduce for the first time a similar undertaking for all Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In the other place, there was much discussion of the question of possible sanctions for breaching the new undertaking. This is an important point and I have absolutely no doubt that we will return to it during discussions in this House. The Government are firmly of the opinion that it would not be appropriate for us at Westminster to pre-empt the Assembly’s own consideration of this issue and prescribe specific sanctions or the means by which they should be taken forward. Rightly, this is a question for the Northern Ireland Assembly and should be decided by that legislative body with the appropriate cross-party and cross-community consensus. There are established mechanisms by which the Assembly holds MLAs to account, including for their adherence to the Assembly code of conduct, and the Assembly has the necessary powers to impose sanctions, should it decide that these are required.
The Bill also extends the time available for the allocation of ministerial positions in the Executive from seven to 14 days after the Assembly first meets following an election. This change was first proposed in the 2014 Stormont House agreement and was confirmed in the recent fresh start agreement. At present, Northern Ireland Executive ministerial positions must be allocated within seven calendar days after the first meeting of the Assembly, as required by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This extension will therefore allow the parties more time to agree a shared programme for government on a cross-party basis prior to the allocation of ministerial positions following the upcoming elections and all future elections.
Finally, the fresh start agreement contains a clear commitment for the UK Government to legislate to increase fiscal transparency, helping the Executive deliver affordable and sustainable budgets. The Bill therefore requires that, when delivering a draft Budget, the Executive Finance Minister must demonstrate that the amount of government funding required by the draft Budget does not exceed what is available.
As I have outlined, the measures included in this Bill are the product of extensive cross-party talks conducted over the 10 weeks leading up to the fresh start agreement. They have the support of the Executive and the Assembly, which were involved in the drafting of the provisions, and a legislative consent Motion in respect of the transferred matters in the Bill received cross-party support in the Assembly, as I said, on
The Bill is a crucial stage in the full implementation of the Stormont House and fresh start agreements, which, taken together, have the potential to resolve some of the most difficult challenges facing Northern Ireland and help us secure a more peaceful, stable and prosperous future for all the people who live in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the Bill, which is very important, but before I comment on some of its clauses, as I look around your Lordships’ Chamber I see almost an action replay of 1998. So many Members of your Lordships’ House were with me and others when we discussed the Good Friday agreement back in the spring of 1998. We are all 20 or so years older, and I suppose we never thought that we would be discussing the same issues in this Chamber—but we are. Those noble Lords who were there will recall that at the very end of the afternoon of Good Friday 1998, the chairman of the talks, Senator George Mitchell, said that although the talks were over this was actually the beginning, not the end, of progress in Northern Ireland.
When I look back over the past 18 years at the different agreements that have been dealt with—the St Andrews agreement and all the others, and of course today the Stormont House agreement and the fresh start agreement—I see nothing wrong with that. I rather fancy that there will be more agreements for this House and the other place to consider in the months and years to come.
But today, of course, we are dealing with a specific Bill in front of us. A theme in all those agreements was the issue of continuing paramilitary activity. The deaths that Northern Ireland has witnessed over the past months are of course tragic, but they in no way compare in numbers to what occurred many years ago. But the fact is that paramilitary activity still exists in some form or another in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the two Governments agreeing to the Independent Reporting Commission is, I think, certainly the way forward. I hope that when the First Minister and Deputy First Minister look at the appointment of members to that commission they will bear in mind the fact—I am sure they will—that there has to be general consensus as to who should sit on it, otherwise it simply will not have the confidence of people in Northern Ireland.
I welcome the fact that there are new pledges of office for Ministers and Members of the Assembly. The Minister quite rightly pointed out that the Assembly itself will have to consider the issue of any sanctions that might be applied were those pledges to be broken.
A lot of the difficulties that Northern Ireland has faced over the past months have been because of disagreements over welfare. When I was the Minister for finance in Northern Ireland, I have to tell the House that I was perplexed that Northern Ireland still had the function that, effectively, the welfare legislation and details here in Great Britain could technically be different from those in Northern Ireland. In reality, they never were. I hope that, in the months ahead, the Assembly might consider looking at what is happening in Scotland with regard to welfare and see whether Northern Ireland could learn from the new welfare powers that the Scottish Parliament has so that they could look at it in a rather special way for Northern Ireland.
I am pleased, too, that the Assembly is looking at the number of its Members. I rather fancy that it will be a bit more scientific than the way that we decided it during the night of Maundy Thursday and the morning of Good Friday in 1998, when the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others came to see me at about 3 am to decide how many Members of the Assembly there should be. We decided that six per parliamentary constituency was the answer. Looking back with hindsight, that was probably too many, but the Assembly will now decide that itself, as well as the number of departments of the Northern Ireland Executive. It is also very sensible that 14 days will now be given for Assembly Ministers to be allocated their portfolio.
The Good Friday agreement was not written in stone, in the sense that as the years went by, adaptions could take place and reviews could happen, so long as there was agreement generally among the political parties in Northern Ireland for such changes to be made.
It is a disappointment—the Minister has indicated why it is the case—that in the Bill there is no reference to the legacy issues in Northern Ireland and to dealing with the past. I do not think that Northern Ireland can finally be settled until we deal with those issues. Although some very good ideas came from the various discussions over the last two years—it is good that the Minister is going to discuss them with Members of this House over the next 24 hours—that issue has to be addressed. There is no question in my mind that the issue of victims and survivors, and of our communities in Northern Ireland, is dependent on how we can deal with the past.
I am glad to see in the Chamber the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, who, together with Mr Bradley, came up with some very interesting ideas in their report, together with the ideas that came from Ambassador Haass later on. There is a lot of work to be done, but I hope that that issue will be addressed as soon as possible.
We have, of course, an election in Northern Ireland in May, as we do in Scotland and in Wales. Everybody involved in politics in Northern Ireland knows that, in a way, political development is frozen until those elections are over because of the importance of fighting them. Every political party understands that; it is what democracy is about. But when those elections are over, there will be a number of years that are election-free in Northern Ireland. The opportunities that can then be given to the political leaders, political parties and others in Northern Ireland to look very carefully at the institutions and where we go will be invaluable.
There are, of course, obstacles in the way. The first comes only a month or so after those elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and it is the referendum on our membership of the European Union. It is my firm belief that, were we to withdraw from membership, it would be of huge disadvantage to the people of the island of Ireland north and south. I have no doubt that our joint membership with the Republic of Ireland of the European Union meant that the peace process went more smoothly and developed in a way that it could not have done had we not both been members of the same club. I believe that the distribution of peace money among the different communities in Northern Ireland was pivotal in ensuring that relations between those communities improved. As far as I am concerned—although I understand that there will be different views in Northern Ireland—that is a huge issue which now faces specifically people in Northern Ireland.
That applies also to what happens in Scotland. I am deeply opposed to Scottish independence, but I have no doubt that the issue will be resurrected soon. If Scotland goes it alone and becomes independent, that could have serious consequences for Northern Ireland—as it will do for my own country of Wales. So these are difficulties which we face there.
One thing that struck me very dramatically when I was a Minister in Northern Ireland and then Secretary of State was that I had no right as a Member of Parliament for a Welsh constituency to rule in that place. Direct rule was infinitely and badly wrong. It should never have occurred, and I felt uneasy all the time at the fact that I had to take decisions on behalf of people who should be taking them themselves. So I welcome this Bill, because it means that we will continue to have the institutions up and running in Northern Ireland in a fresh way through a fresh start. We never want to return to those days where there was direct rule.
But there is a lot of thinking to be done in Northern Ireland in the years that are election free. We should harness academic thinking in Northern Ireland because there are many very good people there who can think about where we go. Let us look at civil society in general and at how people who are not necessarily directly involved in politics can help out in the way ahead. The Civic Forum never really took off in the way that the agreement thought it might do, but there is an opportunity there, too. Perhaps the most significant thing is to ensure that a new generation understands that they have a huge responsibility in ensuring the continuing prosperity and stability of Northern Ireland.
Eighteen years is a long time. It means that you would have to be in your mid or late 30s now to have understood when you were young what was happening in 1998. A whole generation has gone by, and the danger is that complacency can set in—that things can become too cosy and that people can become too cynical about politicians in Northern Ireland. All those things are bad, because, although we perhaps live in an age of anti-politics, Northern Ireland would not be where it is today had it not been for the risks that were taken by Northern Ireland politicians over the last 20 years in ensuring that we have a stable institution there.
So I hope that younger men and women will be attracted to the business of politics in Northern Ireland and will be able to take part in what I am sure will be a good future for all the people of Northern Ireland, irrespective of their religion, traditions or background.
My Lords, while the
Certainly there are elements of the Bill which we welcome, particularly around the Government’s continuing commitment to those matters dealing with the past, about which I shall say a little more in a minute. It is vital that a settlement is arrived at in which the victims of the years of violence and their families can have these issues resolved.
I wish to concentrate my remarks on the security issues within the Bill. I remind your Lordships of my interests in the register, particularly those relating to the police.
Clauses 1 to 5 deal with the setting up of the Independent Reporting Commission, which will look into paramilitary activities. It is to report on the implementation of the relevant measures of the three Administrations—the UK Government, the Government of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive. It will report annually on the progress towards the ending of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland having consulted a wide range of national and statutory agencies and civic society, as we have heard. We wish it well in this herculean task. I ask the Minister whether it is intended to widen the membership of the IRC to perhaps include a respected and knowledgeable person who could act as mediator in what I imagine would be pretty fraught discussions. Does he not think that an internationally acclaimed mediator might be a helpful addition in its deliberations?
The Police Service of Northern Ireland has had to deal with some of the worst aspects of paramilitary activity. In the last 12 months alone it has dealt with 46 shooting incidents; there were 14 more bombing incidents than in the previous 12 months; 60 casualties resulted from paramilitary-style assaults, an increase of 11 over the previous year; and 24 casualties resulted from paramilitary-style shootings—this in an area not much bigger than my county of North Yorkshire. The murder of prison officer Adrian Ismay on
“Kill police officers, prison officers and soldiers”.
The threat from terrorism is still very real in Northern Ireland.
It is also a threat in the Republic, and the assistant Garda commissioner warned that the dissident republicans were becoming more sophisticated, particularly in their bomb-making capability. He itemised the cache of weapons—ammunition, mortars, rocket launchers and Semtex—that the Gardai had recovered. Twenty-two people have been arrested and charged in the Republic on suspicion of dissident republican paramilitary activity, indicating the ever-closer professional working relationship between the two police forces and the security forces. The Bill recognises this close relationship and no doubt the IRC will do so too.
The PSNI is working extremely hard under difficult circumstances to keep the people of Northern Ireland safe in the present. It also continues to investigate crimes from the past on a scale that no other police force in the UK can imagine, first through the Historical Enquiries Team, and now through the Legacy Investigation Branch. While there is currently no political agreement to establish the historical investigations unit, as provided for in the Stormont House agreement, the justice system in Northern Ireland continues to carry out its duties to the victims and families of crimes committed in the past. It deserves our fullest support.
The issues around legacy will be watched closely. As I said earlier, the Government’s commitment to look again at the difficult issues surrounding the past needs to be recognised, but we have been here so many times before. There is an excellent document sitting on a shelf somewhere that was written some years ago by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and Denis Bradley. Its conclusions, had they been acted on earlier, might have provided a rather different landscape from the one in which we still find ourselves. Legacy issues will have to be addressed for Northern Ireland to move forward.
There are countless unsolved crimes, including those against police officers and their families, and the search for justice must continue. With the new legacy bodies being established, can the noble Lord tell me whether the money for them will be ring-fenced? If so, can he assure me that it will be apportioned equitably so that it will include the large numbers of police officers murdered or injured by terrorists?
Finally, having spoken for many years on policing issues in Northern Ireland, I fervently hope that the fresh start agreement will give the brave men and women who serve the public and who daily face the threat of terrorism some reassurance that we are on their side and that their concerns are addressed in this legislation.
My Lords, before speaking on the detail of the Bill, perhaps I may take this opportunity to thank the Minister for his engagement with Members of your Lordships’ House over the past few months while we have been working our way up to this point. It is welcome to have that engagement because it is helpful, and as the Minister has indicated, it will continue tomorrow and no doubt in the days ahead as we move towards the further stages of the Bill. I would also say that the nostalgic contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, reminds us that the passage of time has, I would suppose, disappointed some of us in that we envisaged that while of course we came from a terrible state back in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, nevertheless we had hoped that by this stage we would be moving on to a different political environment than the one in which we find ourselves. But I suppose one has to play the cards one is dealt and we will have to deal with the matter before us.
Without wishing to be negative about it, I have to say that if the Stormont House agreement of 2014 was a steak and kidney pudding, the Bill before us is a reheated version with the steak and kidney having been removed from it in the form of the real substance of the discussions in 2014. Agreement had broadly, though not entirely, been reached, but in early 2015, for base political reasons, one party to that agreement—Sinn Fein—ratted on the agreement and left Northern Ireland facing a huge constitutional and financial crisis, which was totally uncalled for. It was all to do with the politics in the Irish Republic and had absolutely nothing to do with the welfare of the people of Northern Ireland. There is no point in dilly-dallying about the issue. That is why this particular negotiated proposal is before us. The one that we understood was agreed was ratted on by those who had agreed to it. That is why we were left in 2015 with another wasted year, when progress should have been made in other matters.
As to the Bill, the Independent Reporting Commission is something that I broadly welcome. The previous mechanism that existed—the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was a member of it as well—probably ended prematurely. However, after the events of last spring and summer—when two murders had taken place, where the police had clearly indicated in a statement that the IRA was involved and when we did not have any mechanism to shine a light on that—it was perfectly clear that a gap had opened up. We will have things to say at a later stage in the Bill about the establishment of this body, its membership and so on, and the Minister himself will be returning to it, as he said in this opening statement. Nevertheless, it will instil a degree of confidence that there is somebody there who can shine a light.
No matter what anybody says, when we come to the issue of pledges and so on, the history in Stormont has been that parties will close ranks and misuse the processes for cross-community support when it suits them. There is a long-established history of that. Nevertheless, the fact that the body is being established is a step forward to redress and fill a gap in the market which clearly exists.
It was quite shocking to people to have it put to their faces by the chief constable that the IRA was still involved and that, effectively, Sinn Fein was under its influence. Most people, if they were asked in the street, would probably say that that was true. But to have it said by the chief police officer to your face after a murder, and after the passage of time, was quite a shock. Something had to be done about it, and we are gradually moving in that direction. I have no doubt that the Secretary of State in the other place, who had been in charge of the negotiations of the Stormont House agreement in 2014, would have much preferred to have put the total thing forward, but she was unable to. We faced a crisis throughout last year. Yes, the security issue was critical but other issues caused the problem as well.
As we go forward into the Bill itself on the issue of the state of the pledges, I can only say that I am not a great fan of pledges. I do not believe that they matter to some people. Pledges in local government were introduced way back in the 1980s or 1990s. People who were known terrorists and members of councils willingly signed them without any hesitation. Indeed, I think the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was a member of Belfast City Council at the same time. We had some leading lights in there, such as the councillor who blew up the Europa Hotel 23 times. The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, was a member; the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was a member; and I was a member. We know who this man was and we know what he did, and he was quite prepared to sign a pledge. If we move forward to where we would be with Stormont, Mr Gerry Adams says he has never been in the IRA. Could we fill a telephone box in this country with people who would believe that? Yet he is the leader of a party in the current Government. The history is that these folks will sign anything. It does not matter to them; it is water off a duck’s back. I have little faith in this sort of activity.
I have no objections to it. If you want to put it in, put it in if it makes people feel better. Yet if we felt that somebody was going to be effectively damaged by it and put in a petition of concern, there is no sanction. Even if the Assembly agreed one, it is perfectly capable under that process of being stymied anyway. That is why we always felt more comfortable with an external process where something could be delivered. I have no difficulty with this although some make the argument that the use of the word “transitional” could give people a lot of wriggle room. At the end of the day, given what people are prepared to stand up and say—they lie to your face with impunity—I have little doubt that they would sign whatever they were required to without any hesitation.
On Clause 6, on the extended period for the appointment of Ministers, my party has been pushing at this for a number of years. The clause adds only an extra week but when we previously did this we filled the silos the minute we got back home and then started to negotiate a programme for government. With this, we are trying to do it the other way round: first, see if it is possible to agree a programme for government; then, if it is, Ministers would be identified on the basis of the programme broadly agreed. I think a programme for government should be a short, sharp document. The ones I was involved in during previous Executives turned out at something like 90 pages. The vast majority was never implemented anyway. If this works, it might help to focus people on a number of key issues that were agreed before taking office. That might be helpful, but on the other hand people might say, “Well, if whoever were the two largest parties agreed among themselves, never mind, we’ll go through this process and sort it out afterwards”. They can still do that but at least this opportunity is provided and the public will be able to make their judgments.
When we deal with the financial issues we should remember that, last year, Stormont for the first time since 1921 could not balance its books. That had never happened before. Yes, there was the welfare crisis—largely created by Sinn Fein, although all parties had issues or major objections, including my own party. I support some of the compromises that have emerged since. However, the principal reason that there was a financial crisis was really down to sheer incompetence. I got Parliamentary Answers from the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, in November 2014 in which he set out when the Government had advised the Executive what their budget was. They were advised in autumn 2010 what their budget was up to the end of 2015, and they were advised in June 2013 what their budget was up to 2016. Knowing those figures and for that length of time, it was obvious to anybody that there would have to be reductions in public services, even though the financial settlements for Northern Ireland were more generous, taken in the round, than for other devolved regions. Despite that, nothing of substance was done and the arithmetic just did not add up. Although welfare was a significant portion of it, it was not the majority.
What is the solution to that? Instead of having four years in which to plan, to go through a process of people voluntarily leaving their posts and making other arrangements in departments, we ended up changing the budget in-year—the worst possible set of circumstances. Not only that, we have now given the Administration—the Government went ahead and pushed this through in September last year—permission to borrow £700 million to pay off 20,000 public sector workers. That was entirely avoidable. I am also concerned that the Assembly is now racking up huge amounts of borrowing. By the end of this financial year, it will be close to £3 billion of borrowing. That is becoming a very substantial slice of our cake.
We also find ourselves in the position where between 20% and 25% of the population are on hospital waiting lists. We have moved on nearly two decades, so the performance of the Assembly now has to be looked at not simply in the light that it has survived, which I welcome, but also in terms of its delivery. That is where there is huge failure.
Although there are many measures in the Bill to be welcomed, many issues are not in it. I am very pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, in her place and in such good voice this evening. Given that she was a leading light at the time, she will recall the changes that were made to the structures in 2006—the fundamental reason in my opinion why we are not further on—when, following the St Andrews agreement, changes were made to the identification of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Instead of the Assembly appointing them on a cross-community vote, it was done by whichever were the largest two parties. That meant that each subsequent election became a sectarian headcount. That is still the position now. I think that the public have caught on, are getting that message and realise what was done. Nevertheless, that is one of the reasons why we are where we are. Instead of having a shared Government, we have a shared-out Government. There is a lot more to be done. That change was made without reference to the people who had actually negotiated the agreement. It was done behind closed doors and was done basically to buy off those people who had been difficult. I understand why Tony Blair’s Government did it and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who is not in his place, was deeply involved in it. However, I believe that it was a fundamental mistake and we are still paying the price for it.
There will be opportunities at a later stage to discuss all these issues and more and I look forward to that. I hope that as we move forward we will address delivery mechanisms and real improvements to people’s lives because, sadly, many people have been sucked into violence. Even in my former patch, the paramilitaries are rampant. The idea that they have gone away is not true; they are still active and have morphed into different areas of activity. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, will not wish to prejudice anything he might subsequently discover but this is no secret. He will find that there are huge areas of activity in which they are still engaged. They are in many cases major role models for young people in inner-city areas right across the Province. We have not drilled down into the social and economic deprivation in those areas, which is as bad as ever. Yet those are the very people who should have been convinced by the actions of the Assembly that politics works, and works for them. All those young people with no aims or goals in life are at the mercy of people with warped political ideas. We should bear in mind that many of the young people who have been arrested for dissident republican activity had hardly been born at the time the agreement was made, let alone had any major experience of it, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, pointed out. However, they have been used by people to deliver what the latter can no longer deliver, and that is an outrage. Only by making politics work and deliver for those communities will we eventually break the link between the two and the poison that these people spread. I look forward to further discussions and debates next week when we will have an opportunity to drill down into some of these measures in greater depth.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the co-chairman of the Consultative Group on the Past. I am grateful to noble Lords who have kindly referred to that group’s report already in this debate. I also pay a warm personal tribute to the Minister for the care with which he has undertaken the portfolio for Northern Ireland, particularly with respect to this legislation. I would like to put on record that it has been careful; he has listened, consulted and gone far beyond what could have been expected of him.
The phrase which is uppermost in my mind tonight, as I listen to this debate, will be familiar to noble Lords. They are the words spoken by Her Majesty on a recent occasion. She said that progress could be defined as,
“being able to bow to the past but not be bound by it”.
The report that I was privileged to have a hand in linked legislation, the disclosure of the past and investigation of particular incidents with one other theme: reconciliation. But you cannot legislate for reconciliation. You cannot pass laws to have reconciliation in a divided society. You can put in the framework which will allow political progress to take place.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, rightly reminded us of the work that has still to be done, but I beg your Lordships to realise that, no matter how perfect this legislation may be, it is by no means the end of the story. I can assure you that that story is, as the noble Lord said, on the streets of Belfast. We are a divided society; we are a society looking for leadership. We are a society where victims and victimhood stalk the memories of too many people. I have buried them; I have buried the victims of the violence and consoled families. I have tried to suggest ways in which civil society could address the vacuum left by that violence. In my declining years, I am more and more convinced that you cannot gain reconciliation through legislation alone.
The paramilitary situation that is addressed by this legislation—and I welcome the establishment of the monitoring group—is still stalking our streets. To quote the noble Lord, Lord Empey, again, it is still affecting the lives of young people. But it is even more sinister than that. One generation of paramilitary leaders—the people whom I had to try to deal with in my professional life—has gone. We now have young people growing up in these ghetto areas surrounded by peace walls and the remnants of a history and a time that they are taught in school but never knew. They are being influenced by sinister elements and, until we tackle that position, it will continue. I welcome the efforts which I know the Minister intends to take to help us address the legacy issues, I hope that he will bear in mind that we have to tackle a new generation who have new ideas but who are being taught the old grievances in what they are told is their history.
My memory goes back over the years. It is a question not just of the Consultative Group on the Past report but of the days and nights that I was involved in trying to do something to bring about reconciliation, not in a political sense but because of the sickness in our society. If this legislation is to take us on in a fresh start, so to speak, it has to have a realism about it—which so far I am afraid parliamentary democracy has failed to deliver. That failure is caused by many different reasons, not least the fact that there are still those who wish to manipulate the gift of parliamentary democracy for reasons that lie far beyond the debating chamber. There has been reference already to this and Northern Ireland is not immune to that sickness today. I hope that the various provisions of this legislation dealing with the parliamentary procedure in the Assembly and otherwise will help us move further towards realising the difficulties that that procedure involves.
I said just now that we have to recognise our past but not be bound by it. Of course, I am disappointed that this legislation does not represent an agreement that has been reached by the local parties on how to deal with the past. The report that we produced, which, as your Lordships have been reminded, is gathering dust on someone’s shelf somewhere, linked legislation with reconciliation. We listened endlessly for two years to what people said and it was an evidence-based report. From what I am told, the architecture of that report remains—not the detail but the architecture of it. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, just now and going back in my memory to the days when he had responsibility and some of us had dealings with him on behalf of the community, I venture to suggest he will agree that when the architecture of that report is re-examined, as I understand it is being re-examined, it will be judged still to contain certain principles that are worth following.
Much has been said tonight about the current situation. I want us to look forward. I want us not to treat the situation as it is as the end, because reconciliation is work in progress. I want to pay tribute to those former paramilitary members who are doing heroic work. They are not all continuing in a criminal way. Recently I had occasion to meet some of them and I am convinced that they are making a real effort, particularly among the loyalist paramilitaries, to try to see a new future. I hope that when we get to the next stage of this Bill there will be some recognition that these people need support—and they need it urgently.
Finally, reconciliation is nothing to do with legislation, as I say. It is born in the hearts and minds of people when they feel it is in their interests to be reconciled. It is as simple as that. Until we can create a panorama in Northern Ireland that says, “Do you remember the peace walls? Do you remember the paramilitaries? Do you remember this incident? Do you remember that horrific incident?”, and until we can get to the situation where we can say that we are truly an example to the rest of the world in what we can do—then and only then, if some of us live long enough to see it, will we have succeeded.
I thank the Minister for bringing this Bill before us; I thank those in this Chamber who have played a vital role in that process in the past; and I issue the earnest prayer that we are taking one more simple step towards the new Jerusalem that the people of Northern Ireland so richly deserve.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s statement, which set out very clearly the main provisions and aims of the Bill. My party strongly supports the Bill and the proposals to expedite its parliamentary progress, which are important to ensure that the measures relating to the pledge of office, the MLA undertaking and the time available for allocation of ministerial appointments are in place before the return of the new Assembly.
It is generally accepted that unresolved issues relating to paramilitarism and the budget threatened the very existence of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland at the end of last year. It is important to recognise the vital role played by the Secretary of State, her Ministers and the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, in achieving consensus on these critical matters and thus avoiding a potential constitutional crisis. Clauses 1 to 5, providing for the establishment of a new Independent Reporting Commission, represent significant progress towards the ultimate goal of eliminating paramilitarism. The direct involvement of the United Kingdom Government and the Irish Government, as well as the Northern Ireland Executive, should facilitate the compilation of information on the paramilitary activities of both republican and loyalist groups. It would be helpful if the Minister provided further details on the terms of the treaty between the United Kingdom and Irish Governments which will provide for the establishment of the commission.
The Northern Ireland Assembly should be commended for the practical steps it has taken to reach consensus on budgetary matters. The Executive have now agreed a budget for next year, which has been passed by the Assembly in advance of the relevant time limit. Clause 9 provides for greater transparency in the budgetary process. The Minister will be required to lay a Statement before the Assembly, specifying the amount of UK funding for the financial year, 14 days before the budget date, and a further Statement along with the draft budget showing that the amount of UK funding required will not exceed the amount available. I hope that these provisions will prevent irresponsible and short-sighted political manoeuvring that is intended to obstruct and impede the budget-setting process.
Clause 6 and Schedule 1, which extend the time available for the allocation of ministerial positions, should also facilitate the achievement of consensus in the legislative process by allowing the parties more time to agree a programme for government. I believe this is a time to praise the success of the fresh start initiative, rather than indulging in pedantic fault-finding. Many problems still remain unresolved. As we have heard from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, who made such a moving statement, one of these problems is in confronting the past. I should stress that my party would welcome publication of details on the progress made, so that victims, their families and all those affected can be reassured that every effort is being made to achieve a successful conclusion. I very much welcome the Minister’s statement tonight regarding talks on the legacy of the past. I am pleased to support the Bill.
My Lords, I, too, support the Bill and I congratulate the Government on their success in bringing it forward. We should not forget that in late autumn of last year, we were stuck on a number of points: welfare, the legacy of the past and then the noxious effects on political life of two paramilitary murders in the city of Belfast. It did not look at all like it was going to be possible to make progress in this way. However, we have begun an election campaign for a new Assembly in Northern Ireland, which is at least up and running and not going through any deep institutional crisis, which seemed to be just around the corner.
It is therefore fair to pay tribute to the Government and the Secretary of State. During a period which has already been recalled tonight when the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, was Secretary of State and Minister of State in Northern Ireland, I remember some very late-night conversations when things seemed to be falling part and the progress that had been made seemed to be about to disintegrate. He worked enormously hard to make sure that, in the end, that did not happen, and progress continued to be made. It is worth saying that the same level of public spirit has been demonstrated by the current Government. Northern Ireland is very fortunate in general in the way the two main British parties have struggled to preserve normality and to bring about a historic compromise in the Province.
One other positive point, which I am very keen to see, is the arrival in the Bill of the Independent Reporting Commission. I advocated for this very strongly a number of times last year when the crisis broke out following the two murders. I would go so far as to say that, in a way, the commission has already played a positive role, because it is one of the reasons why the parties—particularly the unionist parties in this case—were able to move on after the two murders. The analysis that an institution such as this was required—the view that I think the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has taken—and that the removal of the previous institution which dealt with these matters was perhaps premature, has largely been shown to be right. It has almost done its work already. I do not want to be flippant about this, but the idea has already delivered even before the commission is set up—although, as a number of speakers tonight have stressed, that does not mean that it is not important that whoever fills these positions in the end has public credibility.
I am uneasy about one, albeit very small, element. If I understand the notes to the Bill correctly, the British and Irish Governments are paying for this body but the Assembly, through the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, has the patronage of two of the four appointments. It is a small thing and you can defend it—there is not much point in having a First Minister and Deputy First Minister unless they have that role—but it is so typical of Northern Ireland that Her Majesty’s Government foot the bill, in this case along with the Irish Government, and the Assembly somehow does not quite foot the bill but exercises choice, patronage and political influence with other people’s money. I just think it is a bad habit. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, has described in some detail the financial facts of how Stormont has been operating for some years now, and that it is not really a good omen for the future.
What I want to refer to most of all is an element of the debate on the Bill in the other place. Lady Sylvia Hermon in particular, but also other speakers, identified that there is a problem with the way the Assembly operates. There is a great deal of public cynicism. One idea put forward was for IPSA to be given a role, or for a Northern Irish IPSA to be set up. I totally understand the argument, although it was said in the other place that this Bill may or may not be the right place to approach this issue at this point. However, the point is not just that there is no IPSA-type institution in the Northern Ireland Assembly—and that this may encourage public cynicism about politics, expenses and so on, whether that is fair or not—but that the Committee on Standards in Public Life was removed from operating in the Northern Ireland Assembly shortly before my appointment as chairman. It is pure coincidence that I happen to be from Northern Ireland—the decision was made before an appointment was decided on—but the combined absence of IPSA and the Committee on Standards in Public Life means that Northern Ireland is somewhat light on standards compared with what we have come to expect in the way of transparency in the operation of political institutions. If you throw into that the libel law reform that both this House and the other place implemented in 2013—it opened up a space for investigative reporting in the rest of the United Kingdom, but it has not been implemented in Northern Ireland—perhaps you should not be terribly surprised if financial scandals like NAMA suddenly appear on your doorstep and are such a significant part of Northern Irish life.
I do not expect the Minister to answer this tonight—indeed, I am not at all sure that the Bill is the right place to address these questions; there was division in the House of Commons on the matter—but it is worth asking him whether he agrees that it is worthwhile for the Government to have a view on these matters. The view of Her Majesty’s Government on these questions, the resolution of which ultimately requires action in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has to be important because, to go back to my earlier point, it is Her Majesty’s Government’s money that is being spent here.
My Lords, perhaps I should begin by reminding the House that my interest in Northern Ireland goes back to the 1960s, that it was strengthened by a period teaching history in the Queen’s University of Belfast and that it was enhanced further in the late 1970s, when I was political adviser to Airey Neave up until the day of his murder.
No one could say that the Bill’s provisions have been rushed, or formulated in a precipitate manner. Ten weeks of discussion by the five main political parties in Northern Ireland preceded the Stormont House agreement in 2014, to which the adjective “historic” is now sometimes attached. Another 10 weeks of discussions took place last year to pave the way for a plan to implement a great deal—but, as we have heard, not all—of the 2014 agreement. Twenty weeks—five months—have been devoted to preparing the ground for this legislation.
One clause in the Bill, above all, deserves particular praise. As we have heard, under Clause 9, the Northern Ireland Executive will be required to disclose the amount of funding available to them from Her Majesty’s Treasury before publishing their annual Budget. Financial prudence has not always been a marked feature of Northern Ireland’s devolved government in the last few years, to put it mildly. My noble friend Lord Empey spoke vividly on that point tonight. Clause 9, properly implemented, could mark the first, essential step towards improvement, helping at long last to lay the basis for proper budgetary discipline.
Nearly half the clauses of the Bill are devoted to one subject: the Independent Reporting Commission. It, too, is immensely welcome. Indeed, it is essential, following events last year which exhibited so vividly the continued existence of paramilitary structures and their capacity to inflict deep harm on communities and individuals.
It is difficult not to regret the closing down of its predecessor, the Independent Monitoring Commission, in 2011. The new body’s powers, it is true, will differ in certain respects from those of its predecessor, but it is infinitely easier to adapt the role and responsibilities of an existing institution than to call a new one into existence, particularly since a formal treaty is required between our Government and that of the Republic of Ireland. The retention of the earlier commissioner could have secured progress in reducing paramilitary activity further and made last year’s crisis easier to calm.
The treaty under which the new commission is to be established has apparently not yet been finalised or published. Legislation will be needed in the Irish Parliament as well as this one. Can the Government indicate the earliest date that the commission might come into existence?
I have an issue of terminology to raise in connection with the clauses relating to the commission. Clause 2(3)(a) contains reference to Ireland. Clause 4(1) and Clause 5(2)(b) contain references to the Government of Ireland. In each case, the words “Republic of” need to be inserted before the word “Ireland”. Since 1949, the 26 counties which removed themselves from the United Kingdom in 1922 have been known as the Republic of Ireland in international law.
There arose in connection with this Bill a need for a legislative consent Motion at Stormont, as a result of the convention that astonishingly continues to bear the name of a former Member of this House who brought grave discredit on himself last year. To what exactly has the Northern Ireland Assembly consented? Does the Motion acknowledge that Parliament has unfettered discretion to amend the clauses in this Bill that cover devolved matters, or has it consented to the Bill only in the form in which it was published? If the latter, the Government will presumably set their face against any amendments that may be proposed in Committee.
I touch briefly on the great absentee from the Bill—the so-called legacy issues. Our Government carry formidable responsibilities and duties; they have to protect vital interests of national security, do all that they can to assuage the distress of victims and survivors, and determine how many of a vast stock of documents can be safely disclosed. They have also to counter a version of the Troubles that seeks to displace responsibility from the people who perpetrated acts of terrorism and to place the state at the heart of nearly every atrocity and murder that took place—as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said on
This Parliament must encourage and support a process of evolution to assist Ulster to move forward to a more cohesive and united devolved Government, wholly committed to the creation of a shared future—a phrase that the Prime Minister is fond of using. I hope that this Bill will assist progress towards it. There are encouraging signs. One is the spirit of understanding in which the innately divisive events of 1916, the Easter Rising and the Somme, are being commemorated in this centenary year. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland put it in a recent newspaper article, the commemorations show that,
“it is possible to mark events that are still sensitive and contested a century after they took place in ways that are both dignified and inclusive”.
Ulster must remain among the principle preoccupations and concerns of this Parliament. After 1921, devolution led to its neglect at Westminster, as my noble friend Lord Empey often reminds us. That must never happen again. My party, the Conservative and Unionist Party, must hold in its memory words from its 2010 election manifesto—that we will,
“work to bring Northern Ireland back into the mainstream of UK politics”.
My Lords, like other noble Lords I am grateful to the Minister not just for presenting the Bill with his usual clarity this evening but also for all the work and engagement in the weeks preceding the Bill. I welcome, as others have done, the fact that that work will continue with the briefing on legacy issues tomorrow, which I hope to attend, like many other noble Lords here this evening.
This piece of legislation is of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has said, hardly one that has come to us too quickly, despite the fact that it is in technical terms fast-tracked. But of course it needed to be fast-tracked if it was to be through Parliament here in time for those important elements that refer to the Assembly to be implemented in advance of the Assembly election and the new Executive—and there is the fact that some more time will be given for the construction of the programme for government and the appointment of Ministers, and the pledges of office of Ministers and MLAs.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I have some scepticism about the value and strength of these pledges of office. As he said, we have had some experience of these kinds of things over a long period. However, in respect of the pledge of office and of other elements of this Bill which refer to the disbandment of paramilitary organisation, the fact that these things are included in the context of an agreement by the Northern Ireland parties at the most senior level is very positive. I was interested to learn that the term “disbandment” was brought forward not by the British and Irish Governments but by the Northern Ireland parties as part of their commitment. That degree of determination in terms of the expression of the language was an encouragement to me.
Indeed, in terms of the achievement of an agreement itself—to some extent brokered and encouraged by the Secretary of State, to whom we rightly pay tribute—there is perhaps a sense in which this agreement was more truly the product of the engagement of the political parties, particularly the two largest parties in Northern Ireland, than most other agreements. That is a very positive thing. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, also referred to the fact that budgets—not just welfare, but beyond that—had not really been properly attended to. He suggested that it was to do with inefficiency. Perhaps so, but I am not entirely sure that that was the driver. I think that in truth the Northern Ireland parties, perhaps particularly Sinn Fein and maybe the SDLP, had come to the position over many years where they expected that in the end the British Government would pay and that if the political pressure was sufficient, a small amount of money—in Treasury terms—was likely to be forthcoming. Given that that has been the history, I do not think that we should be surprised that things were taken right to the limit and a little bit beyond because we have been on that track so often before. If you are going to change that, you need to accept that it will come to the limit and people will stare into the abyss. That is the key point. At that point, the political parties in Northern Ireland and their leaders stared into the abyss and decided that they would draw back and sign up for provisions that, were they held to, would obviate that kind of circumstance in the future. It does not matter what we put in the legislation, if people come to the point where they are prepared to have the whole thing fall to pieces, they will just ride roughshod over it, but if they are prepared to put it into legislation, it is at least some indication of willingness to work together to a good outcome, and I welcome that and the other various provisions.
Then we come to the disbanding of paramilitary organisations, which is not quite so incredibly urgent in terms of the election but is at the heart of the Bill. I declare an interest, which noble Lords know, as one of the three people commissioned by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to produce a strategy for the disbanding of paramilitary groups. That is the title of the mandate. We have to be careful when we sign up for things. Some things have been said about victims. There are complaints that their interests were not satisfactorily dealt with. We have to accept that the references to victims in the Belfast agreement were very modest. I am not long back from doing some work in Colombia on the peace process there. The first thing they did in Colombia, before even reaching an agreement—in fact they have not yet reached an agreement with FARC—was to put in place legislation specifically to address the needs of victims. They started with the victims. They did not wait until after everything else to address victims. Should we ever have to do things again, we would have to advise that that is a better way of addressing things. We have to bear some responsibility for the fact that that was not the route that we took. One can always learn from the experience of others in other places.
I was also there partly to look at the so-called DDR provisions, the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration arrangements that they are looking at for FARC and in fact, in the last week or so, for the ELN. Again, we see something that may not have been a mistake on our part but was not the best way that one could have done things. If you are looking for disbandment or demobilisation, what does it mean? It means you are encouraging all the individuals who were involved in terrorist and paramilitary organisations to disperse—not to continue to be engaged with each other, other than in normal networks of friendships. That is not what was done. Instead, the paramilitary organisations themselves were engaged with, as organisations. In that sense, the leaders of those organisations were enabled to have continuing patronage when it came to dealing with, for example, ex-prisoners’ groups. There are not just loyalist ex-prisoners’ groups and republican ex-prisoners’ groups; there are UVF and UDA ex-prisoners’ groups. Even the loyalists do not come together. Why? It is not just because of their history and background; it is because those leaders—of the past or whatever—have a degree of power and patronage within their organisation. We need to think quite a lot about the meaning of that, and about the responsibility we all have to take for the fact that we went down that road. It may be understandable that we did, but maybe in retrospect there were other ways to do it.
What does disbandment mean? There are some paramilitary organisations or—who knows?—former paramilitary organisations that say, “We’ve already gone away”. Whether people believe them or not is another matter. There are other paramilitary organisations that manifestly have not gone away but say that they would like to. In fact, every year they say they would like to, and even sometimes give a date when they will, although it does not actually happen. There are yet others that clearly have not the slightest intention of going away and in fact want to continue, grow and cause us all trouble and difficulty.
We have had reference, quite properly and soberly, to the recent death of the prison officer Adrian Ismay—a horrible reminder of the risks that prison officers and other members of the security services run in the course of their work. However, we also need to get it into perspective. We have probably fewer than 50 prisoners in Northern Ireland prisons in the separated regimes, out of 800 or so prisoners. That is a very small minority—vocal and troublesome, yes, but in comparison with the numbers we were dealing with in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, it is a totally different situation. We need to think about it, deal with it and treat it in a different way, perhaps without some of the anxieties about what could be done, internally in the prisons and externally in society, by addressing these kinds of issues.
As noble Lords will understand, those are some of the issues that are very much to the fore in my own mind when it comes to dealing with these matters. Noble Lords have referred to the fact that south of the border, too, there have recently been some horrifying events, but we have to ask ourselves seriously: at what point do we stop thinking about these things as paramilitary and start to identify them as organised crime—or, in some cases, disorganised crime? That is what it is: criminal activity. It has no serious political motivation at all. Other noble Lords have rightly referred to the fact that, just as this Assembly election will to some extent see a generational change in many leaders, there is also a generational change in some of these organisations too, with young people coming in who do not even remember the situation. There was an extremely interesting comment a couple of days ago by the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in response to claims by some people in the dissident republican movement that it was about remembering and implementing the wishes of the men of 1916. Martin McGuinness said—I paraphrase, but I think this gives an accurate impression—“I didn’t get involved in the things I got involved in during the 1960s because of the men of 1916. I got involved because of what I saw happening in the 1960s to my community, and that is not what is happening now. The excuse of 1916, or even of the 1960s, does not stand in the here and now”. I thought that was an extremely interesting, powerful and in some ways rather courageous thing to say on the centenary of 1916. It says to us that those who are involved and engaged do not have a mandate from some of the most senior people in the republican movement for any political dimension to the use of criminal activity and threat of violence. It was an extremely powerful statement that we should build upon.
I welcome a number of the provisions in respect of the Independent Reporting Commission: for example, that it has a degree of diplomatic immunity and that it cannot be taken to court. Representatives of Her Majesty’s Government will recall that they were taken to court—in London, interestingly—by Sinn Fein in respect of the Independent Monitoring Commission, on which I served. It is clear that the IRC will not be susceptible to that—in truth, it was largely clear back then—and there is now a degree of protection. Indeed, subsequent to the whole Boston College issue, the records will be sacrosanct, and that is extremely important if people are to be open and honest.
However, we need to be a little bit careful: this is not a rerun of the IMC. The reporting commission will be looking at the report that my colleagues and I hope to have finished by the end of May and to publish and present the following month, and it will oversee the implementation of that strategy. That is very different from looking at all the activities of organisations. The reporting will take place once a year, not twice, as was the case with the IMC and was supposed to continue to be the case for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. That is a different dynamic and a different situation, and there needs to be different expectations of what is possible.
The commission also needs to look at how we can change things for those who have been involved so that neither they nor their families feel bound to these organisations. Maybe there are things that we do in officialdom that make it difficult for people to give that up, leave it behind and get on with an ordinary civilian life. I have seen situations where not only the people involved but their children and grandchildren continue to suffer for things that happened some years ago. That is not helpful when we hope that these organisations will go away. We accept that organised crime will not go away, but it is hoped that paramilitary activity can begin to become a thing of the past.
There is much more that one could say, but which at this time of the evening it would not be sensible to say, and in any case there will be other opportunities to say it. However, it is important to point out, and to recognise, that the Bill represents something positive coming out of Northern Ireland and out of the engagement of political leaders. The Government are to be commended on bringing forward this legislation and on not waiting for an omnibus piece of legislation to deal with all the other issues of legacy and so on, thereby delaying getting into place those things we can now put in place relatively easily and non-contentiously, and get on with.
We have to do all we can to ensure that the reporting commission is part of a wider effort to lift the blight of paramilitarism from the people of Northern Ireland. It is not realistic to believe that all criminal activity, or even the criminal activity of all those who have in the past been involved in paramilitary organisations, will be lifted from our community. But the notion of political motivation for organised crime must go, and this Bill is a helpful step in that direction.
My Lords, I join all noble Lords who have spoken tonight in paying tribute and compliments to the Minister for his contribution over this whole period. To my mind, it has been a model of involvement through legislation which can be quite contentious; nevertheless, it is taken against a background of consensus in the political system here. We have no hesitation in continuing our policy of bipartisanship and consent in all matters relating to Northern Ireland, and the Minister has played a magnificent part in bringing about this situation so far.
I also thank and pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen. He is a long-standing friend and colleague, and it is an honour to have him here as my minder for the rest of the evening. My noble friend works in a quiet but extremely effective way.
I would also like to pay tribute to every contribution made here tonight. I feel that this debate deserves a wider audience because of the experience and ability here; the wise words and experiences discussed have been terrific. I think that a video should be made of the debate and displayed as often as possible.
I look forward to discussing with the Minister, and, indeed, all Members of this House, this legislation, which represents an important and positive step forward for Northern Ireland. The Bill delivers some of the key elements of last November’s fresh start agreement and the 2014 Stormont House agreement. These agreements brought to an end the financial and political impasse in Northern Ireland which had threatened the devolved institutions and exposed us to the very real possibility of a return to direct rule—the “abyss” that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, mentioned. This would, of course, have been disastrous, especially when we consider the enormous progress that has been made in the recent past. Therefore, we warmly welcome the Bill.
Before we turn to the detail of the clauses, it is worth reflecting on the events of the past 12 months and what has transpired in order to get us to where we are today. The murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan in the summer and the budgetary stalemate over welfare led to a political crisis that required skill, commitment and determination from everyone to get an agreement, break the deadlock and thereby allow progress to be made. We have no hesitation in saying that all those involved—the Secretary of State and her Ministers, including the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, all the parties in Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic of Ireland—deserve huge credit for achieving the fresh start agreement, which helped prevent the collapse of devolution. It is a real testament to the incredible progress that has been made that we are here debating this Bill today.
I recognise that there was huge disappointment that there is, as yet, no agreement on how to deal with the past. If anybody needs a lesson on how to use a deep involvement in reconciliation while still concentrating on looking forward, the speech of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, is an example of that which is worth quoting. His experience and counsel are certainly worth listening to on all sides of this House and in the Province itself. I also took heart from the debates in the other place. In spite of the regret that legacy issues were not included in the Bill, there was a real sense of optimism about the future and an unwavering commitment from everyone who took part in those discussions to rid Northern Ireland of all forms of paramilitary activity.
Nobody in this House needs convincing that we need a legacy strategy to cope with the hurt, the anger and the deep memories of people who have suffered throughout the years in Northern Ireland. This Bill gives Northern Ireland the tools to work towards this commitment. We recognise that huge progress has been made when it comes to legacy issues, so we should not be too pessimistic. But in the weeks and months ahead, it is important that this progress is built on, while of course recognising the challenges and difficulties that remain. Among those difficulties are the incidents mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, who outlined the events that have taken place which could put a block on things.
The publication of the draft treaty on the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval was welcome. Not only did it show the direction of travel but also the achievements being made in the talks. At the centre of these talks must be victim and survivor involvement and engagement—we all know that that is key. As the talks progress, it is vital that victims continue to be put at the forefront of these discussions so as to ensure that they are at the heart of any future agreement.
I have tried on occasions to imagine myself in the position of having lost a member of my family and how I would feel if I were in Northern Ireland and something like that had happened. I recognise clearly that there has to be a special process to bring closure—I know that it can be a horrible phrase at times—to the continual, everyday bearing of grudges and hatred. Such feelings are perfectly understandable—I do not criticise anybody—but that is a measure of what we have to do to give the survivors and victims some peace.
Recent allegations with respect to various atrocities of the past demonstrate more than ever the need for a process to be agreed. Victims must not feel that they are locked out of any progress, which is why we continue to urge the Government to be as transparent as possible, even where difficultly remains, and to continue to seek agreement.
Given that legacy issues are not included in the Bill, there is a particular need to consider the resources of the PSNI and the Coroners Service for Northern Ireland to support investigations and to speed up the inquests that they continue to be required to do. Insufficient resources will lead to further delays for victims, which I am sure everyone recognises is unacceptable.
In the other place, my honourable friend the shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker suggested that the Government release some of the £150 million fund which the Treasury will make available for legacy projects for the specific purpose of supporting the PSNI and Coroners Service in this interim period. In response, the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State, Ben Wallace, stated:
“We cannot just release the money; we need all the actors on the stage to produce the solution. We need the victims, the PSNI, the courts, the Lord Chief Justice and the Executive to support the solution”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/2/16; col. 113.]
Can the Minister say whether anything specific has happened on that subject since that statement in the other place?
There is no question that we completely support the need for agreement from across all sections, civil and political, in Northern Ireland on legacy issues, but what does this mean for the PSNI and the Coroners Service here and now? How do the Government intend to support their work while discussions as to how best to implement the legacy programme remain ongoing? The Secretary of State indicated that she was listening to these concerns, particularly relating to inquests, when she said:
“If a credible reform package for inquests is put together, we will of course take very seriously any request for funds to support it”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/2/16; col. 26.]
Can the Minister indicate whether the Secretary of State has had, or intends to have, any discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly about such a package to support the PSNI and Coroners Service?
The Bill will establish an Independent Reporting Commission to monitor progress towards ending paramilitary activity. Indeed, we all know that ending such activity is the key thread which extends throughout this legislation. The commission will be established on the basis of a joint treaty between the UK Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Perhaps during later debates—there might not be enough time now for him to respond to everything—the Minister could update the House on the proposed timeline for the publication of this document.
One matter relating to the IRC which was not discussed in great detail in the other place and which your Lordships’ House might consider in Committee, was the progress to be made by the commission and why this initiative will work when others have not. How will progress be judged and what will happen as a plan B if it stalls?
Related to this issue of disclosure, which I am sure Members of your Lordships’ House will want to explore further, the Bill requires the Secretary of State to provide guidance on how national security and individuals are to be protected. This guidance will be crucial if we are to ensure that the Independent Reporting Commission can carry out the work that it was designed to do. Again, any further information which the Minister can provide would be welcome.
I think it is fair to say that the issue which attracted the greatest level of debate in the other place relates to Clause 7, on the pledge of office made by Ministers, and Clause 8, on the undertaking made by Members of the Assembly. The revised pledge includes fresh obligations, and the Bill also introduces a new undertaking for MLAs, based on the same commitments, to support the rule of law and commit themselves to a peaceful pursuit of change and progress. This is, of course, welcome. There are concerns but, if we continue to work on them, they can be alleviated.
The Bill also extends the period of time available to appoint Ministers following Assembly elections. It also relates to fiscal transparency surrounding the budget process, an issue about which the noble Lord, Lord Empey, expressed concern. The intention of this is that it will help in the delivery of a stable and sustainable budget. I hope there will be time next week to go further into these details.
However, the fact that we will have the opportunity to discuss the Bill over a period reflects its importance and what it represents. This is an agreement, not a crisis, and it is important that we recognise that. That is why we will co-operate in all stages of the Bill. Members of your Lordships’ House will know that there is a tendency for Northern Ireland Bills to be dealt with in a single day when a matter requires urgent attention. While we supported an emergency procedure in respect of welfare reform, in this instance we have agreed to an expedited rather than an emergency process. I believe that will strike a tone which will be welcomed by your Lordships.
Agreeing to this timetable means that it will still be possible to secure Royal Assent before the approaching Northern Ireland elections. If a legislative consent Motion is granted—which, we understand, there is agreement for among Northern Ireland parties—the measures relating to the pledge of office, the MLA undertakings and other matters can be dealt with while ensuring that there is enough time for a broader debate about this Bill and related matters.
As I have said, we are able to discuss these issues at greater length because this is an agreement and not a crisis. That shows that we have come an incredibly long way. However, challenges still remain. The Bill is another important milestone in the journey of eradicating the paramilitary activity which is so much at the heart of tackling the issue of violence in Northern Ireland. The impact of paramilitary activity still looms over too many people in Northern Ireland. The success of the Bill, the new pledges and the Independent Reporting Commission will be judged by how far they contribute to bringing about this goal.
The Labour Party is proud of its role in supporting the Government in a genuine spirit of bipartisanship, which exists throughout the House. I hope that some of this debate can resonate in Northern Ireland.