Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:16 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 8:16 pm, 12th March 2019

My Lords, unlike most of the speakers in this debate, I do not come from Northern Ireland. It is a part of our United Kingdom that I got to know and love when I was chairing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place. The people are marvellous; the countryside is beautiful and I fell in love with it.

I shall always have two particular memories, because 2005-10 was a very interesting, formative time. One was in 2008, when Ian Paisley—the late Lord Bannside—retired. I was at Hillsborough. Perhaps some of your Lordships were as well. It was a remarkable occasion. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was there to pay tribute. The Taoiseach was there. The most moving and amazing part of that evening was the wonderful address, delivered to his friend and mentor, by Martin McGuinness. We have come a long way since then—and not in the right direction.

There is another event I shall always remember and which is printed on my mind. There was a particularly brutal murder of a young man called Paul Quinn. His parents came to see me and some members of the committee and we were invited to Crossmaglen. I was informed that I was the first British politician from this part of the United Kingdom to address a meeting in Crossmaglen since 1901. The warmth of the people, suffused on that occasion by very considerable anger, was palpable.

I feel very sad indeed that neither the Executive that was created nor the Assembly that met regularly exists for the moment. I do not go along with the desire for direct rule. I believe this would be a terribly unfortunate development. I do, however, associate myself with those who have talked about the way in which we are dealing with Northern Ireland legislation in this place and in another place. It is nothing less than an insult to the people of Northern Ireland for us to fast-track the two Bills that are before your Lordships’ House tonight. Frankly, there is no need for it. I am delighted and grateful that we have another day next week on the second of these Bills. I will endeavour to be present and to take part in the debate. I am sure that your Lordships who are here will all do likewise.

It is not good enough. Billions of pounds are effectively being nodded through. There is nothing approaching scrutiny or detailed examination. If we are to have another year like this—and I suspect that we are—this must not be allowed to happen again. There must be proper, adequate scrutiny, even if it has to take place not on the Floor of your Lordships’ House but in the Moses Room, in Grand Committee. We must engage. The people of Northern Ireland are as deserving as the people of Lincoln—where I now live—or of my former constituency of South Staffordshire. They are not getting the government they deserve. They are being short changed. Unless and until the Assembly and the Executive are restored, we have to shoulder—and willingly—the burden of government. This does not mean an early imposition of direct rule.

In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, took up a cry that we have made separately and jointly on many occasions. Why, oh why is the Assembly not meeting? He and I accept that it would not have legal, executive authority. Time and again, I have asked my noble friend why the Assembly cannot meet. I attach no blame whatever to him. My noble friend is an exemplary public servant. He conducts himself with great dignity and is exceptionally well-briefed. When I said it to him again last week, he was kind enough to say that he would try to give some sort of definitive answer this evening. I wait with real interest because it is very important indeed.

I want to touch on a couple of issues, one of which—this renewable heat incentive—has been touched on many times. I am not going to read anything into the record, because that has been done. I have received, as have many of your Lordships, a number of pleas—cris de coeurs—from people in Northern Ireland who believe that they have been badly let down and misled, encouraged to do things they would not otherwise have done and placed themselves in penury as a result. One of them was cited by a noble Lord a moment or two ago. We have all had those letters and I dare say that we will be referring to them again.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, was unable to be here this evening because of a long-standing previous engagement, but he talked me beforehand because I was one of a group of former Secretaries of State and others who went to see the Secretary of State some weeks ago. I also had a private meeting with the victims’ commissioner, who was over here. We were particularly concerned about the plight of those who, through no fault of their own, had their lives shattered—effectively destroyed—as a result of injury during the Troubles. Most of them are in their 60s or 70s. Many, alas, have already died. We have been told that there is a desire to give them pensions, but as my grandmother used to say, fine words butter no parsnips. These are people who are often living in the most straitened circumstances: their bodies pulverised, their futures destroyed decades ago. They deserve help, and I very much hope that when next we have a Bill before us, it will be a very short one that we can indeed fast-track, and which will enable those people to be recognised.

I finish where I began. It is very wrong that this legislation should be fast-tracked in this way. There is no excuse for it, there is no need for it and the people of Northern Ireland deserve better.