Northern Ireland (Extension of Period for Executive Formation) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 10th April 2019.

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Lord Duncan of Springbank:

Moved by Lord Duncan of Springbank

That the Regulations laid before the House on 21 March be approved.

Relevant document: 23rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (Sub-Committee B)

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

My Lords, as I have said many times, restoring the Northern Ireland Executive remains the Government’s key priority in Northern Ireland. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has spoken to the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government on a number of occasions over recent weeks.

In those discussions, all five parties have been consistent in their commitment to restore power-sharing as set out in the Belfast agreement. The five main parties will undertake a further series of talks with the aim of restoring devolution at the earliest opportunity. The Irish Government also support this approach. These talks will involve the UK Government, the five main parties and the Irish Government, in accordance with the established three-stranded approach.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 extended the period for Executive formation to 26 March. The Act gave the Secretary of State the option to extend that period once for a period of up to five months. On 21 March she laid before Parliament the statutory instrument that extended that period to 25 August, subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

That step was taken reluctantly. However, as the 26 March approached without agreement to form an Executive, only three options were available to the Government: calling an Assembly election, undertaking direct rule, or extending the period for Executive formation. The Government believe that an extension is the best route toward restoring an Executive.

During this period, the Secretary of State will continue to work with the five parties and the Irish Government to create the right conditions and the best possible framework for successful talks. As a first step, the Secretary of State intends to invite the MLAs of all parties to two sets of briefings, one on issues related to the programme for government and the other on the petition of concern.

Before I conclude, I want to explain why the Government chose to use the made affirmative procedure in this instance. Our preference would have been to bring forward this instrument in the usual way, using the draft affirmative procedure, but that procedure carries with it a longer lead time. We would have had to lay the instrument weeks earlier than we did. The Government took the view that laying the instrument at that earlier stage would have been prejudicial and disruptive to the private work the Secretary of State was undertaking with the parties during February and March. Of course, the instrument cannot remain in force without this House’s approval, which is why we are discussing this today. That is the reason I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, extensions are clearly the flavour of the day. We at least know the exact date for this one. However, I regret this infinitely. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for what he has said on the Floor of your Lordships’ House and in private conversation. I do not for a minute doubt his total commitment. However, it really is not good enough that we have to keep revisiting this matter.

The history of our country over the last year would probably have been different had we had a Northern Ireland Assembly functioning where people would have been able to express the view of the largeish majority recorded in June 2016. We touched on this before. As it is, we have heard only one view and one voice in parliamentary assembly. The only parliamentary Assemblies we have been able to hear are your Lordships’ House and the other place.

Several times, a number of us, including my noble friend Lord Trimble and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice —neither of whom is here at the moment—have strongly endorsed the plea that I have made many times to my noble friend. Can we at least make some real progress by having the Assembly meet? Of course, it is a second best to having the Executive as well. We all recognise and acknowledge that. The sooner we can have an Executive, the better. Until we do, why can we not have an Assembly—the Members of which are paid; I am not complaining about that—meeting in Stormont and able to discuss the issues of the day, even if they will not have the legal authority they would have if we had fully restored devolved government? We touched on one issue only a week ago when we were talking about flags. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, moved an amendment to the Motion, which I was happy to support. I yet again ask my noble friend to please do his utmost to persuade the Secretary of State that this really would give out a signal that would be warmly welcomed throughout the United Kingdom and, I believe, Northern Ireland. It is not impossible; it should be done.

I very much hope that my noble friend will also be able to say something about progress towards appointing some highly respected neutral individual—I hate the word “facilitator”—who would be able to try to move things on towards the restoration of the Executive. I make no criticism of anybody’s integrity, but the perception, because of the official link-up between the Government and the DUP, is that the Government are somehow involved in partiality. I do not believe it—I certainly would not believe it of my noble friend in a thousand years—but it is a perception, and perceptions are important. Therefore, to have someone who would command the respect of all potential participants could be only helpful. When he comes to reply to this brief debate, I ask my noble friend to be kind enough to touch on both those points.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

My Lords, I have a lot of sympathy with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. It is sad to have to yet again ask the Minister why the Government cannot do what is so obvious: to appoint an independent person—call it what you will—such as Senator George Mitchell, who will bring the parties together. I have talked to Sinn Féin and to the DUP—they all blame the other side. That is understandable in the present situation, but surely we need a new initiative. I understand what the Minister said about calling people together in Belfast, but surely we can appoint a person. I understood that there was sympathy for that proposition from the Government and the Irish Government. Why can we not just do it?

The present situation is absolutely intolerable. We are relying on civil servants to make the decisions. They, having been challenged once in the courts, will understandably be cautious about not breaking new policy ground. It is a natural reaction and I do not criticise them for that, but we are in a really difficult situation. I cannot think of any situation in the last 100 years or maybe longer—I am sure that there are historians here who can give me a better perspective on this—where there has been no democratic recourse at all for a part of the United Kingdom. The people in Northern Ireland have nobody to go to when they want to challenge government decisions. It is intolerable that there is no way forward at all. In the past there has always been some form of Administration, whether direct rule or a devolved Assembly. It is a unique situation that, for two years, there has been no democratic accountability at all. There is a total democratic deficit, and that has to be dealt with, because it is critical.

The suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, of getting at least the Assembly Members together might do it, although I doubt whether they or even the committees would have the authority to make decisions. Maybe they would; it is at least worth exploring.

The Minister will be aware that this question is coming: could I press the Government on an area where no decisions are being made? I had a letter from the Immigration Minister to say that it was impossible for Northern Ireland to accept unaccompanied child refugees in the absence of an Administration at Stormont. I have talked to people involved in local authority and health board decisions in Derry and Belfast. They all say that there would be a willingness in Northern Ireland to take unaccompanied child refugees. I cannot understand why that cannot happen. I am told that the only way is a judicial review. That is a cumbersome, costly and miserable expedient. Surely the Minister could suggest something better. We have the Home Office desperate for unaccompanied child refugees to be given foster accommodation in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland people are willing to do it, yet between the two of them nothing is happening. Please can we get on with this?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 4:15 pm, 10th April 2019

My Lords, the issues raised in this order are serious and indeed grave. It will not have escaped the House’s attention that there is no representative from Northern Ireland in the Chamber, as far as I can see—which rather brings home the gravity of the situation we are talking about and the need to get the devolved institutions working. Clearly it is not satisfactory that these issues should be determined in the absence not only of one part of the community of Northern Ireland, which alas is always the case in this House and in the other place, but frequently in the absence of any representatives from Northern Ireland at all.

In respect of the way forward, those of us who do not follow the politics of Northern Ireland day by day were under the impression several months ago that the Government were making progress in agreeing with the parties in Northern Ireland for there to be a mediator. However, nothing appears to have happened since. I am sure that a lot has happened behind the scenes, but certainly nothing has happened in public. Can the Minister give Parliament some encouragement that this might happen? He will have heard clearly a real sense of concern around the House that weeks will turn into months and years, the status quo in Northern Ireland will remain that of no Executive and no sitting Assembly, and obviously there will come a point where the situation simply breaks down.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland)

My Lords, the Minister may feel that there is an element of Groundhog Day about this debate—but that was a comedy and this situation is becoming increasingly tragic. I echo all the speeches expressing concern about the lack of progress. We need, through the Minister, to press the Secretary of State for some more positive signs of action and creative, imaginative thinking. Neither the Government nor this Parliament have any real credibility as honest brokers in this situation. The Government, as has been said, are perceived, frankly, to be under the thumb of the DUP. Everybody knows that when one deals with the DUP, they do nothing without exacting a price, whether it is visible or invisible. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, whether or not anything is happening, the perception is that it is—and indeed, looking at the practice, it would not be surprising for people to have that perception.

As has also been said, this Parliament has little credibility, because the majority of the parties in Northern Ireland are not represented here. This also makes the possibility of direct rule almost unthinkable. How can Ministers accountable only to this Parliament be at all credible as brokers of direct rule on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland when the people of Northern Ireland have very little representative voice?

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

Does the noble Lord agree that it is a great pity that, with the disappearance of the SDLP in the other place, there is no voice of moderate nationalism in either House?

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland)

Indeed—we lost the SDLP and the Alliance in the House of Commons, and that absolutely adds to the problem. We have to recognise that, as does the Secretary of State. Frankly, she alone does not have the capacity to call the parties together and get a result without looking more widely. It has been said in previous debates that there is no momentum or willingness to bring the Northern Ireland Assembly back together until Brexit has been resolved and there has perhaps been an election in the Irish Republic. Well, that is looking an increasingly distant prospect, and those who take that view have to explain how they can possibly justify waiting for such an indeterminate, indefinite time before they are prepared to engage in this process. Pressure needs to be brought to bear by those who have the ability to pressurise each of the parties and to whom those parties are most likely to respond—and I have to say that the British Government and Parliament do not feature in that particular calculation. So I suggest that we should not be expected to wait for Brexit or the Irish elections to be resolved.

My question is very consistent with the other points that have been made. Is it not time for the Government to recognise that we need to bring the guarantors of the Good Friday agreement—all of them—back together? We need to bring together those agencies that made it possible to get a peace agreement in difficult circumstances 20 or so years ago. Of course, that means the UK and Irish Governments and all the political parties. I have to say the European Union as well, because it has been part of that process, and the United States. All of them need to be brought together, and that is why we need some kind of independent chair for those discussions who will command credibility on all sides. Why on earth is that not happening?

This has been delayed because the Secretary of State has been having conversations. I am sorry, but the Secretary of State’s conversations will lead nowhere, because she does not have the authority to make sure that they do. The question, therefore, is: will the Government consider practical steps, along the lines that have been suggested, to bring Assembly Members together, either in a full Assembly or in committees—preferably both—so that they actually engage with each other on practical, day-to-day issues?

I read in the Explanatory Memorandum the assertion made by the Secretary of State—perhaps on this point I should accept the assertion—that the provisions of these regulations are compatible with the Convention on Human Rights. It is beginning to become questionable whether the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland are actually being put at risk by this long delay. The Explanatory Memorandum says:

“There is no, or no significant, impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies … An Impact Assessment has not been prepared for this instrument because there is no, or no significant, impact”.

Well, I beg to differ. I think that there is a very significant impact on all those bodies in Northern Ireland from the continuation of this complete stalemate, and the total lack of effective government.

Every day that goes by, the people of Northern Ireland suffer more and more from the lack of decision-making, and the situation becomes more fraught and more dangerous. We have seen, only in the last 24 hours, that a mortar was found on a roadside in County Down. As far as one can tell, it was left by the roadside to be collected by another party with a view to perpetrating a terrorist attack. All the main parties, of course, have denounced that, but that is the problem: the main parties are not engaged, the Assembly is not functioning and other bodies may feel they have some kind of dispensation to take control. The situation is extremely dangerous and I plead with the Minister to recognise that this Government and this Parliament cannot solve the problem. We need to turn to all the international bodies that were instrumental in bringing peace to Northern Ireland in the first place to try to ensure that we break the deadlock. We cannot wait for Brexit or for an Irish election; we have until August or we are in deep, deep trouble—and I really think that the Minister has to accept that.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I must apologise for not being here at the start of the debate, other business having moved on so quickly. I shall be very brief. Our debate has made clear that signs of encouragement are hard to find at the moment. The Secretary of State herself made the lack of any serious current activity absolutely plain when, on 21 March, she was forced by the Opposition in another place to make a Statement about this order, which was brought forward with unseemly haste, I think. Ms Bradley said:

“I intend to spend the next few weeks working with them”— she was referring to the local parties in Northern Ireland—

“on actions that can be taken so that, when we are able to start a formal talks process, we are able to do so in a way that gives us the best chance of success”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/3/19; col. 1229.]

Our fellow countrymen and women in Ulster have had to endure the absence of democratic control over their vital public services—education, health, social welfare—for two and a quarter years. What does the Secretary of State tell them as these services continue to deteriorate? That she hopes to start a formal talks process at some unspecified point after preliminary discussions with Ulster’s five main parties. Have we not been here many times before since January 2017?

Our recent debates on Northern Ireland have shown wide agreement across this House on two points above all. They have been mentioned in this debate in particular by my noble friend Lord Cormack, former chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the Commons, who speaks with such authority. First, we are at one in doubting whether a serious talks process can be brought to a successful conclusion without the help of an eminent individual from outside Northern Ireland who will be able to command full respect across the Province. Secondly, it is widely felt that the existing Assembly should meet so that its Members can themselves consider what role they might play in bringing about the progress that is so badly needed. I associate myself fully with those two points, which have again been brought out so well in this debate.

I will raise one further matter with my noble friend. He promised a Written Statement following our debate on the acute problems surrounding the renewable heating scheme in Northern Ireland. Could he say when that Written Statement might become available?

This order provides another five months in which a path back to full democracy in Northern Ireland can be found. We all hope for success, but as things stand today it is difficult to feel great optimism.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

My Lords, I, too, apologise for my late arrival. As with the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, it also was due to unavoidable reasons. It is most disappointing to find ourselves debating again today something that we debated some months ago. It is regrettable that devolution has not been restored to Northern Ireland.

I have said before, and it bears repeating, that my party is ready to go back to Stormont tomorrow with no red lines and no preconditions to be met before talks commence. Unfortunately, Sinn Féin pulled the whole thing down. I said before that that was one of the big weaknesses in the Belfast agreement: one party has a monopoly and can destroy everything that others attempt to bring together.

The Assembly was established with great pain. When it was established, I was not the greatest supporter of the way it was brought together, because I could see that the whole edifice was built on sand. When you give one party a degree of spower such that it can bring the whole edifice down at one call, there is something fundamentally wrong with that type of democracy.

There are issues that need to be sorted, but surely the place to sort them is around the table in Stormont. I have heard it said here today that we need some eminent person to bring all the parties together. I am not opposed to that, but I do not think it is necessary; it would further exaggerate and complicate the whole situation in which we find ourselves. Northern Ireland is in dire need of government. We are falling behind on issues; our health and education systems urgently need attention. Why can that not happen? It is because Sinn Féin has decided that a few of its impossible red lines must be met.

Of course, this is not the first time Sinn Féin has pulled down Stormont. It did it before over welfare reform; it did not like it, so it walked out of Stormont and everything ground to a halt. It has done it on this occasion. Make no mistake; it will do it again and again. It is doing it because it does not want Northern Ireland to be portrayed as a good place to do business and where parties can work together. It was not easy for the parties, all coming from different positions, to work together. However, that Rubicon was crossed and progress was made. Important decisions were delivered on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.

I served on the Northern Ireland Assembly for some 18 years, when it was very difficult because of the system that we had and because of the two opposite positions: one wanted to destroy the union and the other wanted to keep it intact and in place. It is very difficult to work with partners who take up those diametrically opposite positions. However, it was done and it was achieved for a period of time. Oh that it could be again.

However, we find ourselves in this position today because Sinn Féin does not like taking unpopular decisions. It has an election pending sometime in the Irish Republic. It has to be careful that it sends the right message out to its grassroots, and that is exactly what it is doing at the moment. All the time, the people of Northern Ireland, no matter what position they come from, whether it is unionist or nationalist, are the sufferers as a result of this.

The Secretary of State has been less than progressive in taking issues forward in Northern Ireland. She could and should be doing much more. It is regrettable that we have to come here today, but although I regret the order I understand why it is before the House. Surely, however, Northern Ireland deserves to be governed like any other region of the UK. Some might say that, with Brexit in the torment that it is in, there may be a whole lot of regions of the UK that are not being properly governed, but Northern Ireland certainly is not.

I appeal today to the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, to take the initiative, step forward boldly and let the Assembly be resumed. Let those talks begin around the table, and let all the issues, whatever they are, large or small, be discussed so that Northern Ireland can move forward.

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 4:30 pm, 10th April 2019

My Lords, I very much support this Motion. It is necessary and it means that we can move ahead over the next few months to try to get a resolution. It is not about a no-deal Brexit situation, but it is about Europe in many ways, because we could have resolved the issue of the backstop if there had been an Assembly and an Executive in place. I believe that the nationalist and unionist parties in Northern Ireland would, over a period of two years, have come to an agreement. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is central to the negotiations over the European Union and Brexit. Brexit has polarised opinion in Northern Ireland in the same way that it has done in Great Britain, except that there is a Northern Ireland tinge to it.

Sinn Féin and republicans believe that Brexit will enable a united Ireland. Only this week, the president of Sinn Féin said that she believed that we would see that united Ireland very quickly because of Brexit. The unionist community in Northern Ireland purports to speak on behalf of the whole of Northern Ireland, whereas 56% of the electorate of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union. The failed negotiations in Brussels, therefore, are intimately linked with the failed negotiations in Belfast.

The problems have been mentioned many times in this Chamber, and I will repeat them, because I hope that the Minister will engage the Secretary of State on the issues that are important by way of process over the next few months.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the Taoiseach has been sufficiently engaged in trying to solve the situation in Northern Ireland. There is a mechanism: the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which was part of strand 3 of the talks leading up to the Good Friday agreement. As the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said, the guarantors of the Belfast agreement are the two Governments. I suppose it is a matter of debate as to whether the Prime Minister’s involvement would be beneficial or not; the point is that she is the Prime Minister. We would not have seen progress in Northern Ireland over the last 20 years had not successive Prime Ministers, from John Major onwards, been intimately involved in negotiations. There is no evidence that that has occurred in the last couple of years. Insufficient time has been given to the negotiations, if we can call them that, over the last two years.

The other day I heard the Secretary of State giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Select Committee. I do not for one second deny her sincerity or purpose in wanting to resolve the issues of Northern Ireland. However, in answer to a question from Lady Hermon she said that she spent one day a week in Northern Ireland. You cannot make peace in a part-time way. We would never have got the agreements—Good Friday, St Andrews, or any of them—unless there had been much fuller engagement by the British Government. You cannot make peace by making telephone calls—you have to meet face to face and engage in round-table, all-party talks. There is no evidence that over the last two years the parties have faced each other to discuss the issues that confront them.

There has been no attempt to get an independent chair or facilitator, in my view; the Minister can tell us whether there has been. We need them because people, rightly or wrongly, believe that the DUP cannot be an independent arbitrator, because it has an agreement with the Government. I do not think that the Government deliberately set out to be partisan for one second, but it is a perception, so an independent chair or facilitator is essential. It seems that there has been no plan, structure, timetable or shape to the talks to set up the institutions in Belfast, which should have been concluded long ago.

It is not all the Government’s fault—obviously, the parties have to take their share of the blame. Sinn Féin, which was a signatory to the Good Friday agreement, is breaking it by not taking part in strand 1—by not taking their seats in the Assembly or having Ministers in the Executive. Obviously there was an issue with the DUP on the RHI scheme, which caused a collapse in confidence as well, but it is prepared to have no preconditions to go into talks, as the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said. However, important issues were dealt with and need to be dealt with. No—we are drifting towards direct rule as every week and month goes by, and if that occurred it would be a disaster.

As I have said many times—the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, touched on it today—Northern Ireland is the least democratic part of our country and of the European Union. No nationalist Members of Parliament, or, for that matter, Members of this House, take their seats; there is no Assembly or Executive to deal with the important issues of education, health and all the rest of it; and people have to rely on councillors, who are members of local authorities that have less power than their counterparts in Great Britain, as the only existing democratic institution in Northern Ireland, which is a disgrace. There has to be more intensity about the talks, more energy and commitment, and more evidence that the Government have an actual plan. I therefore hope that the Minister, who I know is very attached to his job and committed to bringing about devolution in Northern Ireland, can perhaps tell us what that plan is.

The Minister touched on one example: the two committees of MLAs which the Secretary of State will meet. That is a start. It does not go as far as the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about bringing the Assembly together—which is possible: I did it when I was a Minister in Northern Ireland and I am sure it could be done again. The absence of the Executive and the Assembly and the possible destruction of the Good Friday agreement because of it, is a hugely serious matter which, at the moment, is taking second place because of what is happening on Brexit. The collapse of those institutions is important not only to the future of Northern Ireland but to the future of the United Kingdom as well.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

My Lords, this has been a short debate but, as always, instructive and thought-provoking. I am reminded that 21 years ago to the very day, 19 unforgettable words were stated:

“I am pleased to announce that the two Governments and the political leaders of Northern Ireland have reached agreement”.

I would love to be standing here before you to say that very thing, but I cannot.

I believe there is support for the extension: that it is seen as the least worst option of the three on the table. I think that around this House there is general acceptance that those five months may yet afford an opportunity for the parties to come together and for an Executive to be struck. I think it is accepted that that is the least worst option before us.

A number of other points were raised today, and let me address them as best I can. Noble Lords will recall that, in the past, my noble friend Lord Cormack and others spoke of bringing together the Assembly in some capacity and said that that could well have an influence on events. I also recall that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has said more than once that, truthfully, had there been an Executive and a fully functioning Assembly, there would have been a change in the weather over Brexit. I agree: I think that is correct.

I said at our last gathering that we should find a way to discuss the notion of an Assembly in that capacity, and I will make sure that we continue that idea: that we find time to see how we can advance that and bring something comparable to discuss. I think there is merit in that. As is rightly pointed out, we see in Northern Ireland the least democratic part of the United Kingdom.

As to the question of a facilitator, the words I cited at the outset from George Mitchell are a reminder of what someone can do when they are able to bring the parties together. The role of a facilitator is under active consideration, and I believe that we will move forward on it in the coming weeks and months of the five-month extension.

Noble Lords are correct to point out that it is very difficult for the Government to appear entirely neutral when so many noises off suggest otherwise. Perception can in many cases be more challenging than the reality. We need to find a way to explore that to bring to bear an opportunity of trust restoration which can, one would hope, bring about the breakthrough that we all need.

In Northern Ireland, there are plenty of individuals at whom one could point fingers and say, “If only you had done more”. I suspect that everyone could do that, pointing in very different directions. The challenge before us today is: what can we do now to move things forward? Five months is a very short time. Five months would be a challenge at the best of times. Five months today, with all that is going on around us, not just in Northern Ireland but beyond, is a reminder of the challenges we face.

As we look at those challenges, we recognise what five months means. It is only a few weeks until we begin the marching season. We have the local government elections in Northern Ireland, which will place stresses on the body politic. We have Brexit, ever present, looming over us. Each of those challenges us to bring about the very thing that we all so clearly wish for—that all parties seem to wish for, yet cannot find the magic moment to come together to break through the wall that has separated them. That is a frustration.

A number of noble Lords made points about the Assembly. I will do all I can to see how we can move that matter forward. I believe that the time for a facilitator is fast approaching, and that we need to figure out how to make it so.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about unaccompanied asylum-seekers. I do not have the information to hand but, if he will allow me, I suggest that we sit down together and discuss that point when I have more information to hand. That would be useful and I would be happy to share the results with noble Lords after our meeting.

In listening to the debate, I am conscious of how many times I have stood here, trying my best to explain what appears to be inexplicable. None the less, we have to recognise that we are where we are.

On the RHI, I had hoped that by now we would have had a written report for this House, setting out the conditions outlined at the previous meeting. However, noble Lords will recall that its drafting rests with civil servants in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, I cannot instruct them to do so against a timetable but I assure noble Lords that it will come and that, when it does, I will ensure that it is laid before the House so that noble Lords can see exactly what it looks like.

It is not a pleasure to do this. I would dearly love there to be an Executive in Northern Ireland, now more than ever. The opportunity presented by the next five months needs to be grasped because if it slips through not our fingers but the fingers of those in Northern Ireland, we will end up, in short order, with direct rule. That is not the answer to Northern Ireland’s problems. We need to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland grasp the opportunity afforded to them to create an Assembly that works—and, noting the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, a sustainable Executive. If we can achieve that, we will have done a great deal.

I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland comes in for a degree of criticism in this Chamber and elsewhere, but I assure noble Lords that she remains committed to the task before her. It is a challenging task that is exacerbated by Brexit, as noble Lords who sit here and who have experience of that same suite of challenges will recognise. There is no point pretending otherwise. If Brexit could be resolved, we would make progress but, in truth, if the Northern Ireland question could be resolved, we could make progress on Brexit. Perhaps it is the other way round.

I am afraid that I can give noble Lords no more to lift their spirits in this regard, but I hope that the five months secured today can be used to deliver the very thing that we want and that the people of Northern Ireland are crying out for: the return of sustainable, decent government to deliver on the issues that are piling up in Northern Ireland and that need to be resolved.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 4:45 pm, 10th April 2019

My noble friend always impresses. He has the regard of all Members of your Lordships’ House. However, we must move things forward. Will he undertake to make a statement to the House after we return from the all-too-brief and already-truncated Easter Recess so that we know exactly what is happening?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

I am always content to return to this House and explain what is going on at any particular point. I would hope to do so on the basis of news to report. If my noble friend will allow it on that basis, we can keep this House updated on what is unfolding. I do not wish to place pressure on the parties by so doing, of course, but it is right and appropriate that this Chamber understands how events are unfolding—particularly when we have only five months. When these regulations were introduced in the first instance, we had five months in the bank that we could potentially draw upon. Now we do not. This is the five-month period and the sand is trickling through the hourglass. It is appropriate that we keep this House updated so that noble Lords understand what is happening. I will do my utmost to ensure that your Lordships are kept fully abreast of these issues when there is news to report.

Motion agreed.