My Lords, perhaps I may make a few brief comments. We have had quite a number of challenges from those who have already spoken on this issue. They recognise, I think, that the Northern Ireland Assembly is the place to decide this matter, and, as a former serving Member of that Assembly, I could not agree more.
We need to keep things in perspective, because it seems to me that a number of debates are contained within one debate today. In our previous debate, about animal welfare, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said that it would be up to the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide these issues. When asked about the position in relation to Northern Ireland, he said that it was a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. I wondered then whether the next issue for debate would be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. I will repeat what I have said on other occasions in this House: give us the Assembly or give us direct rule. At the moment, we are in no man’s land, and we cannot abide there much longer. Northern Ireland deserves to be governed, just like any other region of the United Kingdom.
There was allusion to the fact that the petition of concern is the problem. Let me make it very clear: at no time did my party ask for a petition of concern to be inserted into the Belfast agreement. We believe that it is very bad government to have it and we will say that anywhere. However, it is there; ironically, at the last talks neither Sinn Féin nor the SDLP wanted it withdrawn. We believe that there is a much better way to do it.
We have to be very careful. If we start cherry picking—saying that we will do this piece of legislation but we will not do that—where will that take us? We can draw only one conclusion. When this House and the other place start to make legislation relating to Northern Ireland, irrespective of the issue—and this is where we get lost sometimes—the message will go out very clearly that both this House and the other place have given up on devolution.
I have said this before and I think it bears repeating: if devolution returns tomorrow—it is unlikely to be tomorrow, since it is Saturday, but we will take Monday—the first through the door will be my party. We will be at the head of the queue. We did not bring the Northern Ireland Assembly down, but, because of the way the Belfast agreement was constructed, one party can at any time bring the whole thing to a halt.
Let us face the elephant in the room. We were told that Sinn Féin could not continue because of RHI. But there has been a public inquiry into RHI and it will make its findings known within months or perhaps weeks—that fox has been shot. What is now holding it up? Sinn Féin has another list of things that it needs—and you can be sure that, once there is any move to bring back the Assembly, another list will appear to say we cannot have devolution because this has to be done. Remember, this is not the first time that the Northern Ireland Assembly has come to a standstill. Noble Lords will recall that there was another occasion.