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My Lords, we are debating a subject which is very sensitive in Northern Ireland. The background is that the people of Northern Ireland largely have faith, which is not a common thing in other parts of the United Kingdom. The largest faith is the Roman Catholic Church; the second largest is the Presbyterian Church, which is of Scottish background. Both those Churches—the two largest in Northern Ireland—are opposed to same-sex marriage. On the other hand, in the political scene in the Northern Ireland Assembly, as has been correctly mentioned, a majority would support same-sex marriage. So there is a division between the two main Churches on the one hand and the politicians on the other.
Why has the issue of same-sex marriage not proceeded? It is because of the petition of concern, which is part of the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland. It is wrong to have à la carte devolution, and it is a nonsense to suggest that this is simply a human rights issue. Marriage is a devolved issue for Northern Ireland, as it is for Scotland. It is not a question of the national Parliament imposing its will on a devolved state, and we must be careful to maintain the right of devolution, which I strongly support—I was involved in the negotiation of the Belfast agreement. The people of Northern Ireland—Catholic and Protestant, unionist and nationalist—must together make their own decisions on internal devolved matters.
It has been said that this has to be decided by the Northern Ireland Assembly when it is reconstituted, and I agree. However, there is the problem of Sinn Féin. I advise noble Lords that the likelihood of there being a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland is years ahead. There are two reasons for this. First, you could not get agreement in the present circumstances of Brexit, which has caused an even greater division in politics in Northern Ireland. Only yesterday, two fishing boats from Northern Ireland were impounded by the southern Irish authorities, for the first time ever. This has caused great political bitterness overnight in Northern Ireland, and I gather that today the Dublin Government have announced that they will urgently revise the laws of their country so that it does not happen again. That is the kind of thing that is happening in Northern Ireland because of Brexit, and the sooner we get a decision on Brexit, the better—I hope that it will not be extended beyond
The second reason why we cannot get an Assembly overnight in Northern Ireland is Sinn Féin. This is not simply because of reasons such as the Irish language, and so on. As I pointed out earlier in the debate, that is a minimal issue in Northern Ireland. People do not seem to realise that in Northern Ireland, every school can teach Irish if it wants—it is financed to do so, and we even finance the setting up of all-Irish schools where English is not spoken. Every effort is made to facilitate the Irish language in Northern Ireland, yet yesterday we heard that in secondary schools, the number of pupils passing A-level Irish is falling year by year. No, the real reason why we cannot get devolution in the short term in Northern Ireland is not because of the Irish language but because there will be an election in the Republic of Ireland within the next 12 months. One of the main parties in that election will be Sinn Féin, and it does not want to enter into a Northern Ireland Assembly where it would be in our Government, because it would have to make unpopular decisions which might damage its prospects in the Republic of Ireland. I do not foresee devolution being restored in Northern Ireland until after the southern Irish election.
So I say, with regret, that the issue of same-sex marriage will not be decided by the Northern Ireland Assembly in the short term. I feel that one way of resolving the devolution issue would be to address the problem of the petition of concern. However, it would be very wrong for this national Parliament to start imposing some parts of direct rule on Northern Ireland while retaining devolved powers for other matters in Northern Ireland. Some day we may have to decide to have direct rule in Northern Ireland, but I will continue to be of the opinion that devolved powers must be restored to Northern Ireland and decisions made by Catholics and Protestants working together.