Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:55 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 7:55 pm, 22nd May 2019

It is conventional to say that it is an honour to follow—and it is always a joy to follow—my friend the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, but I could not disagree with him more in what he said about England. I urge him to concentrate his ingenuity and endeavours on Scotland and his prodigious and valuable work here in your Lordships’ House.

I will try to be not quite as long as the noble Lord, but he tempts me to reminisce, as did the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble Lord, Lord Bew, in his extremely thoughtful and reflective speech. One of my very first strong cross-party friendships was with the late, great Tam Dalyell. I felt privileged to be his friend. He led the charge against devolution in the first Parliament in which I sat in 1970, and then again in the 1974 Parliaments. Tam always said that he was opposed to devolution because he was a patriotic Scot, because he believed so fundamentally in the United Kingdom and because, in his view, devolution would inevitably lead to separation.

Tam has still not been proved right on that. I hope he never will be. I spoke to him just a week before he died and he talked about it, hoping that he would be wrong. Of course, what has happened over the last three years has certainly, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, pointed out, made it more rather than less likely that within the decade the United Kingdom we all know and love may be no more. I will do all I can, and I think that everyone in the Chamber tonight will do all that he or she can, to try to stop that, but it is a very present and great danger, and we have to be aware of it.

I would love to reminisce and talk about people such as Donald Stewart, former provost of Stornoway, who was the first Scottish nationalist I knew. We entered Parliament on the same day. I was also delighted to become a friend of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, whose wife really won me over by her wonderful playing of the harp—one of the most civilised of all parliamentary wives.

However, tempted as I am, I will not talk in detail about Scotland or Wales, both of them countries that I love dearly. My Scottish ancestry has been traced back at least 500 years and my elder son lives in Scotland. He considers himself Scottish and fought hard in both referendum campaigns to keep the United Kingdom and to ensure that Scotland voted to remain. I am very proud of him for doing that, even though he deserted the Conservative Party and joined the Liberal Democrats.

I will concentrate tonight on that part of the United Kingdom which I have come to know and love over the last decade or more. During my last five years in the other place I was chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and I got to know that wonderful place very well indeed. I insisted that our committee travelled around Northern Ireland and did not, as had been the tendency, have all its meetings in Belfast. I shall always remember with great and fond affection the fact that I was able to take my committee and to address a meeting in Crossmaglen—a part of Northern Ireland where no committee had ventured before. I was told that I was the first Conservative Member of Parliament for over a century to speak in Crossmaglen village hall. In getting to know Northern Ireland at a seminal time in its history—I was there between 2005 and 2010—I became full of admiration for the Government of Tony Blair, building on the work of Sir John Major, which led to that extraordinary agreement which we often refer to as the Good Friday agreement.

During my time, the power-sharing Executive came into being, with two extraordinary men. If you had asked me four or five years before, I could not have said that I admired their pasts, but the chemistry that brought together Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness was something extraordinary to behold. I shall certainly never forget being at the farewell dinner when Ian Paisley stood down as First Minister. A great dinner was given in Hillsborough, and the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and the Taoiseach were there. But who delivered the panegyric, or eulogy, to Ian Paisley? It was Martin McGuinness, who talked about his mentor and his friend. I know that people joked about them, calling them the “Chuckle Brothers”, but there was something magic in the chemistry that brought those two men together.

I grieve that we have now had almost two and a half years without an Executive and without the Assembly meeting. I have said it in your Lordships’ House before in a different context but I do not apologise for repeating it now: I believe that the history of the last two and half years would have been very different if the Assembly had existed and the Executive had been functioning. The only representatives who take their seats in Westminster are those of the DUP, a party committed—I do not question its motives or sincerity—to Brexit, representing a country that voted 56% remain.

I believe that had the Assembly existed, and had there been an opportunity for those of other political persuasions to speak in Northern Ireland over the last couple of years or more, we would have gathered a different impression and would not have had all the heated debates we have had over the backstop in quite the same form. We might now have reached a settlement. I do not know—it is speculation. However, it underlines the great disappointment that we do not have an Executive or an Assembly. Time and time again in your Lordships’ House over the last couple of years—I am sure that my noble friend Lord Duncan is fed up with my worn record—I have said, “Can we please have the Assembly meeting and have a chairman or facilitator to perform the role that was performed by the American Senator George Mitchell?” Can we not try to bring the people together? It is wrong that it should just be civil servants, and it is particularly wrong—the noble Lord, Lord Hain, referred to this earlier—when the civil servants in London tend to disagree with those in Northern Ireland. We have an unfortunate, barren phase in Northern Ireland history at the moment.

I was glad when the noble Lord, Lord Hain, talked about that particularly deserving group of people: those who were injured, through no fault of their own, in the Troubles. Only very recently, the noble Lords, Lord Hain, Lord Murphy, Lord Browne of Ladyton, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and I, met with the victims’ commissioner, who talked movingly about various people. She mentioned one lady who had served in a voluntary capacity in the police force and who, in one of those terrible incidents, had been burned all over her body to such a degree that she could never work again. After a lot of struggle, she got a modest pension. But all over Northern Ireland, there are those who were mutilated and injured in the Troubles. Many of them are now in their 70s and 80s, and many have already died. My noble friend Lord Duncan promised in your Lordships’ House—the noble Lord, Lord Hain, reminded him of this—that he would try to get a move on with this.

The time for procrastination and prevarication is over, and we need to have prime ministerial engagement. I repeat the request of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for another meeting with my noble friend Lord Duncan, and I hope that he will be accompanied by the Secretary of State. That is just one little thing that we in the Westminster Parliament can do. But of course the greater thing is that an injection of urgency may have been given—perhaps as a result of that ghastly murder of a few weeks ago of that able young woman and the stirring address of a Roman Catholic priest at her funeral. I know that we are all obsessed with Brexit, but this is part of our United Kingdom where devolution is not working, and where it must be made to work.

My firm plea to my noble friend is: let us make it a target that by the end of July at the latest, we have a proper formula. It may be necessary to bring in a facilitator or chairman, and I think that would be a good idea. As I have said before, because of the alliance with the DUP, the Government are not perceived as objective. I believe they are, but that is not the perception. I can think, for instance, of no better person to do this than Sir John Major, who did so much at the beginning. I merely offer that as a suggestion—I have not discussed it with Sir John, who will probably never speak to me again when he knows that I have mentioned it. However, as we celebrate devolution in Scotland and Wales, we need to prepare to celebrate it again in Northern Ireland.