My Lords, the Prime Minister has been very generous to the Democratic Unionist Party to the point where she is open to criticism. I suggest that the DUP shows its appreciation and reduces the Prime Minister’s exposure by doing everything it possibly can to restore the Assembly. It should sort out all the issues that Adams is using as an excuse. If he still prevaricates, which I suspect he will, we should get behind plan B, which is a corporate assembly, which could be up and running quite soon and avoid direct rule .
As a result of the success of the pro-union parties in Scotland, a second independence referendum is off the table for now, so we can reflect on the experience, which was messy in the absence of a legislative framework. The solution would be to extend the provisions of the 1998 Belfast agreement, which regulate the holding of a border poll to Scotland. Schedule 1 to the 1998 Act has two important provisions. The first provides that the Secretary of State shall hold a poll,
The key words are “Secretary of State”, “likely” and “majority”. The power to hold a referendum rests with the Secretary of State, who can act only if an independence majority is likely. You cannot have a poll just because you want one, because you hope it might produce a change or that it possibly might produce a change. There has to be something more concrete. Obtaining a majority in an election could not trigger a poll because votes in an election rest on a variety of matters and words in a manifesto do not bind the voter. We should remember that part of the reason for having referenda was to take constitutional issues out of day-to-day bread-and-butter politics.
The second point of interest in the 1998 Act is that there cannot be a poll earlier than seven years after a previous poll, which ensures that there will be at least three elections between one referendum and another, which is a reasonable safeguard. That brings us back to Northern Ireland, where the electorate are regularly told that if a certain unionist party does not have more votes than a certain nationalist party the constitution is in peril. That is rubbish. Only a border poll can produce constitutional change. A general election or an Assembly election are irrelevant on that point. In two of our recent elections Sinn Fein have made significant gains. I came across a comment by a nationalist blogger who was anxious to show that these gains had had an effect on the likelihood of a border poll. He said that in a recent Northern Ireland life and times survey there was an indication of increased support for a united Ireland. In looking more closely, he cited an increase only from 31% to 34% and that was the percentage of Catholics supporting a united Ireland, which left out a lot of others. That shows the scare- mongering was far from the truth.
Finally, there is the point also mentioned by my noble friend Lord Empey—the issue of devolve and forget. The three regional Secretaries of State are really now redundant. Their job was to represent their region to the centre. That is now done by the Assemblies and their Ministers. We need a higher profile, centrally based Secretary of State for constitutional issues and the regions. His function should be to be the guardian of the national interest and to promote co-operation among the devolved bodies and between them and the centre. There will then be no forgetting and there will be an avenue for matters to be considered by this Parliament through having that Secretary of State accountable to it.