My Lords, it is with some regret that I speak on this issue today. Indeed, I feel that this is the sort of debate that we should not have to have. I find myself in general agreement with everyone who has spoken and with some of the things that have been said, if not all of them. However, I think the Minister knows and understands clearly where we are coming from, those of us who reside and come from Northern Ireland, when we see this type of debate. This debate should be taking place either not at all or in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but regrettably that is not the case. I recognise that the Minister has to do what he has to do. I am not sure that he has to do it at the 11th hour, but it has to be done nevertheless. He may be the one in the firing line—if that is a bad choice of words, I apologise—and has to take the flak here today, but it can come as no surprise to him or to this House that we find ourselves debating this issue this evening.
I could commence by saying, “Here we go again”. We have been here on other rushed pieces of legislation at the 11th hour, which is something I do not understand. I cannot understand why it is that way. We accept, of course, the reason for this Bill because we do not have a functioning Executive and Assembly. That is most regrettable. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, say that he is not a fan of direct rule. Neither am I, but it would be infinitely better than what we are getting at the moment, because, basically, we are not getting rule. My first choice would be to have a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland with a functioning Executive. I suspect that even those who have yet to speak would say that that would be their first choice too.
We were told quite expressly that the Belfast agreement was a great compromise, that it was how Northern Ireland would be governed in future and that all future decisions would be made around the table, either in an Executive or in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Everyone signed up to it, some perhaps more reluctantly than others, but nevertheless we were told that this was as good as it was going to get. Hence, we had devolution for upwards of 20 years. Was it perfect? Not at all. Were there aspects of it that I did not like? There were many aspects I did not like. Indeed, it was the most convoluted and complicated piece of work that I ever witnessed in my political life, but we do not have an Executive today, we do not have a Northern Ireland Assembly, and I make it very clear to this House that I tire of people saying, “Oh, they are all to blame—they could never agree on anything over there”. I make it very clear that we have no Assembly today because Sinn Féin walked out of the Assembly and brought it crashing down. It was a calculated and deliberate piece of work. Surely there have been greater crises that have to be got over, but you do not bring government crashing to the ground to stress your point. You sit down, you debate it and you get on with it.
What have we been asked to do here this evening? The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, it was who put his finger right on it. He said that we are being asked to wave through £60 billion of budget with no scrutiny and virtually no questions asked. We are supposed to suck it up and get on with it. Would this happen in any other region of the United Kingdom? Would it be tolerated in any other part of the United Kingdom? I suspect it would not. Why does it have to be tolerated in Northern Ireland? Do we not deserve better?
Northern Ireland has gone through turbulent times, 30 or 40 years of horrendous times, and there was then a breath of fresh and a sigh of relief that maybe we were going into better times. Should we not be allowed to get on with that? If we cannot have devolution, let us have the second best, which is direct rule. I am not a fan of it any more than is the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, so let us have it on a temporary basis, until we get the restoration of devolution. Surely the Minister can tell us today; the previous time he was here, he said that it would be the last. I am not saying this to embarrass him—I know he said it in good faith—but I noticed he did not say that this time will be the last; he has learned his lesson. Someone has to take the initiative and inject some urgency into the whole situation and debate in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is correct when he says that prospects of a swift return to the Northern Ireland Assembly do not look promising. That might not be what we want to hear, but it is very factual. The Government need to move with some degree of urgency and say, “Enough is enough; we can’t continue like this, we have to deal with the particular problem here”. That problem lies in the Belfast agreement: it allows a single party to pull down the whole edifice of government at a whim. That has to change; if we do not get that change, we will go in perpetuity into this uncertainty.