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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, for the manner in which brought forward his amendment, and the respect with which he has treated those who have different views on this subject. As I have said before, I respect and do not doubt the sincerity of noble Lords who hold different views from me, but nor do I apologise for the views which I hold with deep conviction.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, talked about profound frustration. I suggest to her that she knows nothing about profound frustration when it comes to Northern Ireland. I have been an elected representative—for 25 years in another place, for 37 and a half years in local government and for 15 in the local Assembly—and I know what it is to represent the people. For each of those posts, I was elected by the people, not chosen or given some honour as I have been for this House.
However, there is certainly a profound frustration when it comes to what is happening in Northern Ireland because, as my noble friend Lord Morrow rightly pointed out, it was one party—Sinn Féin, and Sinn Féin alone—that brought the Assembly down. Many in your Lordships’ House seem reticent to condemn or name it for pulling down the Northern Ireland Assembly. Many of these issues could once again be debated in that Assembly, because that is the debating chamber in Northern Ireland under the devolution settlement.
During every debate I have attended that has made reference to the Belfast agreement and to the devolution settlement for Northern Ireland, it has been emphasised and re-emphasised that nothing will be done by this Government or by the Opposition which would undermine that settlement. However, I suggest to noble Lords that these amendments do just that. Whenever this issue was referred to the court, it was acknowledged that it was the prerogative and the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate and decide this issue.
I have been asked a question about when this will be. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, that, in this conversation with Sinn Féin, perhaps we could ask it when it is going to lift the embargo and allow the Assembly to come back into existence, because it and it alone is stopping that. Again, as my noble friend Lord Morrow said, if the Assembly were to be started on Monday morning, my party would be through the door and take its rightful place there. It is Sinn Féin alone that is blocking the Northern Ireland Assembly from coming in to sit. I cannot in good conscience have any knowledge of when the Assembly will come into existence, because I do not know when Sinn Féin will lift or remove its objection and be willing to come back into it.
Let us be quite honest. There are many very demanding issues that need to be decided. For example, people are dying because things are not happening through the health service, which is happening because Ministers are neglecting their position. Many decisions have not been made because Ministers are not there. But it is Sinn Féin alone that is stopping those Ministers from being there—it needs to be pointed to and shown up for what it is doing. There are many issues that Ministers need to decide on, but the Government have decided that no other Minister will come, that devolution must not be undermined and that direct rule will not take place. At this moment, direct rule is certainly not in the offing, and devolution is the only show in town.
While there is a possibility of the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I appeal to noble Lords not to close its doors and remove a major plank for the existence of the Assembly in making these issues, as was acknowledged by the court.