Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:40 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat 9:40 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, as he undertakes the responsibility for speaking for Her Majesty’s Government on Northern Ireland issues in your Lordships’ House. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop. During his time at the Dispatch Box, he was energetic and conscientious in keeping us involved and informed, and we appreciated that very much.

In February, in March, in April—not in May, because of the election—I spoke on issues of Northern Ireland, its political crisis and Brexit. I return today to speak again about Northern Ireland, not to repeat anything I said before, but to point up one or two issues on the politics of Northern Ireland, the problem of Brexit and also, perhaps briefly, about countering extremism.

I have heard a number of criticisms of the Government for their confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party. I am no supporter of the Democratic Unionist Party. However, I draw to the attention of noble Lords that, with the honourable exception of Lady Sylvia Hermon, the only representatives of Northern Ireland in the House of Commons are the Democratic Unionist Party, voted for by the substantial majority of Protestant people in Northern Ireland. If the message is to go out that the only representatives of Northern Ireland will not be welcome, not only in a coalition but even in a confidence and supply arrangement, what does that say to the people of Northern Ireland? It does not say that they are very welcome in the affairs of the United Kingdom. Oh, we were all congratulated for going into power-sharing arrangements with each other, but do not expect anybody this side of the water to have anything to do with these people from that funny place.

Of course, I think it is important to draw attention to the fact that it is almost inevitable that Sinn Fein will be in coalition government in the Republic of Ireland before long, having massively overtaken the Labour Party. Unless Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were to go into coalition—not entirely likely—the only other party for them would be Sinn Fein, and if they were to go into coalition, the negotiation would probably not be over £1 billion but over speaking rights for Westminster MPs from Sinn Fein to speak in the Dáil in Dublin; they have no intention of coming to Westminster at any stage in the future. Would that be a threat to the peace process?

I do not think any of these things are a threat to the peace process. Why? Because what Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and others demonstrated is that political progress is much more possible for them through the democratic political arrangements than through the barrel of a gun or through bombing. They are much more successful now than they ever were while using terrorist violence. So the likelihood of going back to terrorism is very modest. The peace process, in that sense, is largely over. We are now in a political process. The fact that it is in a bit of a mess does not make it entirely different from what is happening on this side of the water. Nor is the fact that there is deep polarisation in politics, with only two large parties, a major difference between Northern Ireland and England. We need to be a little bit more reasonable and honest about these things.

The parties there are in negotiation. They have been since 2 pm today. They need to reach an agreement by Thursday, and the Assembly has been called to meet at 12 pm. My question for the Minister is: if there is no agreement, whatever the Government do, will they ensure that the Assembly survives and we do not have direct rule without elected representatives from Northern Ireland being involved in an Assembly? Without that, we are in serious difficulty and there is the possibility of destroying a whole generation of Northern Ireland politicians.

That brings me to Brexit. There has been much talk about north-south difficulties. In economic terms, the problem for the Republic of Ireland is not north-south; it is east-west. The vast majority of the Irish economy is dependent on the relationship with England and Wales, not the relationship with Northern Ireland. I wish it were different, but it is not. The major thing in the economy in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is co-operation over agriculture and agri-food business. That is where much of the economy is involved. That is where much of the north-south cross-border traffic is. I ask the Minister: would it be possible for the Government to lobby Brussels that, on the issue of agriculture and agribusiness, there should be an approach to the island as a whole and free movement of animals and agri-food business? That would deal with a lot of the practical issues of free movement of goods and services in Ireland. Of course, as far as the people are concerned, the common travel area is the important thing.

Finally, I will speak briefly about extremism. Nobody would doubt that what happened in Northern Ireland involved violent extremism. I am just back from Colombia. Nobody would doubt that what happened there was countering violent extremism. But the Government’s policy—from the war on terror to countering violent extremism to trying to produce a law that defined extremism, which did not work, now to a commission on countering extremism—will not work if it is based on the notion that this is all about extreme thinking. It is not. It is about extreme feelings that drive people to do things. People can believe all sorts of things, but they do not drive them to risk their lives. If I asked many noble Lords if they believed in heaven, they would probably say yes. If I said, “Would you like to go there?”, they would say yes. If I said, “Would you like to go this evening?”, they would say, “I am not in such a marvellous hurry”, because you can believe all sorts of things, but it takes passionate commitment to want to risk your life and your family for them. I hope that the commission will consult with those of us who have spent our lives working with violent extremism in order to understand what it is really about, not what people sitting in offices in peaceful parts of the world think it is about.