Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:24 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Reid of Cardowan Lord Reid of Cardowan Labour 4:24 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, we live in strange times. When the Scottish Parliament is told that now is not the time for another referendum on separation not by the British Prime Minister but by the Scottish First Minister, as happened today; when Mr Gerry Adams takes to quoting Edward Carson, that stalwart of unionism, to bolster his case, as happened this morning; and when the strong and stable Government announce that their strength and stability depend on what is just about the smallest party in Parliament, we know that times are strange. In that context, we must be doubly circumspect, especially on the subject that I will speak about, which is one of the greatest political achievements of the past century—the Northern Ireland peace process.

I will say something about what is called the deal. First, I have no objection in principle to the distribution of extra funds to Northern Ireland. I have always believed that that is justified. The Province is a unique case—it still carries the economic legacy of decades of violent turmoil; it still depends hugely on public expenditure for its economy and employment; and it is the only part of the United Kingdom that has a land border with part of Europe, in southern Ireland. Just south of that border is a highly competitive taxation regime and currency. That makes Northern Ireland unique, and I am afraid that I have no sympathy with other Administrations who complain and say, “Me, too—anything they get, we should get”, because those areas did not have 30 years of war, turmoil, death and desolation, as Northern Ireland had.

I have always believed that Northern Ireland is a unique case, but other aspects of the deal might have worried me and could have carried the greatest dangers. If, for instance, the DUP had insisted on imposing its particular moral values on social policy on the mainland, or if it had succumbed to the temptation of pressuring the United Kingdom Parliament to intervene injudiciously in the events in Northern Ireland, I would have been worried. Thankfully, both those things have been avoided—at least for the moment, and let us hope that that continues.

A wider issue touches on the role of the UK Government in the peace process as a joint and even-handed guarantor. I do not wholly share the pessimism of former Prime Minister Major about the inevitability of the situation leading to a crisis. After almost 20 years of peace, the benefits for the whole population in Northern Ireland are obvious to them above all, so I do not go the way that John Major does. However, the Government would be extremely unwise and utterly complacent to ignore the consequences of the recent accommodation of the DUP, particularly for perception. The perception of conflict of interest for the Government, with their role as joint guarantor of the Belfast agreement while they are at the same time in an accommodation with one of the parties to that agreement and one of the contestants in the negotiations, will be particularly difficult, especially given the number of extremely contentious issues that remain to be dealt with.

As the House will know, the power-sharing talks enter a crucial stage in Belfast today. I hope that they will come to a speedy conclusion, but my experience in Northern Ireland tells me that that is not entirely inevitable and that, even if they do, there will be forthcoming talks. If I were asked to offer advice to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, which I confess that I have not been, I would tell him to look at the history of recognising the real perception of conflict of interest, such as now arises, and to consider using neutral chairmen for any forthcoming negotiations in the Province. I say that not to question the integrity of the Ministers or the Government; there is a legitimate precedent for this. Your Lordships may remember that US Senator George Mitchell chaired the peace talks; Chris Patten, now the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, chaired the RUC reform process; I appointed Richard Haass, the American diplomat; and the Canadian General John de Chastelain oversaw decommissioning, ably assisted by the Finnish statesman Martti Ahtisaari.

All those outsiders and many more like them assisted hugely in progressing the peace process, and I believe that similar figures could and should be asked to do so now. I propose that not because I question the Government’s integrity but because, in this House, we know that what matters is not the substance but the perception of a conflict of interest, which must be countered. It would be a tragedy if an arrangement that was meant to bring stability to the UK brought instead only instability to Northern Ireland and to one of our finest achievements in many years.

Finally, I have one quick word about Scotland. I have been a lifelong supporter of and advocate for devolution, but I say to the Government, in the knowledge that the Prime Minister has finally discovered this, that devolution was never meant to be, nor is it now, the gateway to separation. It was the opposite of complete separation and complete centralism. That is what the people of Scotland have supported over the years and their discontent is now becoming obvious at those who try to use devolution as a Trojan horse with continual, incremental and consistent application of constitutional change to drag it away from what it was meant to be—devolution—and towards separation. I hope the Government will recognise that and support the people of Scotland in what they really need, which is better services in health, education and the economy. The people of Scotland will be grateful.