Amendment 1

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Lord Cormack:

Moved by Lord Cormack

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out “21 October 2019” and insert “13 January 2020”

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, the amendments in this group all stand in my name but I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Trimble and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, for adding their names to all but one of them. These are very simple amendments, which I trailed last week at Second Reading. All they do is alter dates in the Bill. They do not cause any impediment whatever if, miraculously—I think it would be miraculous—a Northern Ireland Executive were set up in the very near future. I think there is common agreement among those who follow the affairs of Northern Ireland closely that it is, sadly, very unlikely that any significant change will take place by the August date in the Bill. I regret that, just as I regret that for more than two and a half years now we have had no Northern Ireland Executive and no Assembly.

My noble friend who will respond to this debate knows full well my views on the desirability of summoning the Assembly, having its committees working and, above all, having an Executive, the absence of which has deprived the people of Northern Ireland of proper devolved government for more than two and a half years, but we must be realistic. Your Lordships’ House will be going into recess, as will the other place, at the end of next week. We come back briefly in September. By then a new Prime Minister will have been in office for some weeks, but nobody in this House or the other place imagines, much as we might regret it, that the new Prime Minister will have anything at the top of his agenda other than Brexit. All eyes will increasingly be focused not on a date in the middle of October but on a date at the end of October—31 October.

In these circumstances it seems sensible to avoid the constant coming back for a renewal, effectively, of a mandate. We have done this too often now. Therefore, in these amendments I am suggesting that we delete the October date, insert a fallback date of 13 January in its place, and that for a fallback date we have not 13 January but 10 April. I have put that date for a very deliberate reason. That will be the 22nd anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I hope that might focus minds, particularly in Northern Ireland. It will also take off what some people might consider undue pressure.

I intervened on my noble friend’s wind-up speech last week and indicated that I was minded to table amendments to this effect. He responded very graciously. The amendments are now before us and I very much hope that the Committee will see them as non-controversial, giving more time to the parties and people of Northern Ireland to restore proper devolved government and taking away the ever-increasing threat of direct rule, which no one who cares about Northern Ireland and who was excited by what happened nearly 22 years ago wants to see happen. I trust that my noble friend will be able to give me a very satisfactory answer to these amendments. I am grateful to my noble friend and the noble Baroness for supporting them and I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Trimble Lord Trimble Conservative 3:15 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, I rise to support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Cormack for the reasons that he gave in moving it. It is very wise to give more time for this. I notice that he is suggesting 13 January instead of 31 October, which gives a couple of extra months, but I rather like the idea of putting down 10 April and reminding people that it is the anniversary of the making of that agreement, which, when it was mooted, was agreed to by referenda with substantial majorities. The effect of that has not gone away. It is generally assumed in Northern Ireland that that agreement provides the basis for the local Administration.

Unfortunately, others are trying to undermine the agreement. Indeed, the worst of those trying to undermine the agreement—thankfully, at the moment it looks as though they will be unsuccessful—are the European Union, the Irish Government and our own Government. That is precisely what they are doing. I shall not go into great detail, although I can do so. I have been scribbling on this subject and something might emerge shortly, so I shall not start at this stage. We are not into a filibuster yet but, if the need comes, I am prepared to engage at some length on what I have just said. Putting in the date that reminds people of the agreement might, I hope, be an incentive to those who should be working to restore the Administration so that we have no further need of this legislation. We know that, because of the length of the hiatus in the institutions, the hope is not all that great, but it is worth reminding people of this and perhaps giving somebody’s conscience a prick ever so slightly on the subject.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who, as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement. I pay tribute to him for his tireless work for peace in Northern Ireland over so many years.

I am pleased to support the amendment to the Bill moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The final, real purpose of the Bill is to prevent an election to enable more time for the talks to take place. All these dates will do is to make further accommodation. The amendment is not inconsistent with the main purpose of the Bill.

I spoke at Second Reading, and since then thousands have told me of their concern. I will speak more of that later. If the Bill could pass to give effect to its original purpose, it would be better to extend the period because, apart from anything else, at present Northern Ireland is on holiday. For example, I was trying to call the Minister through the Northern Ireland Office this morning, but all the numbers seemed not to work. I could not get anyone, and my suspicion is that this is a public holiday in Northern Ireland and that is why I was unable to get him. That tells you something about rushing a Bill that will make such a profound constitutional change through your Lordships’ House this week. The talks seem to have been very difficult, but they are being conducted by the Government. They have been facilitated and enabled by the Government, and the Minister has told us how committed they are to these talks and the future creation of a Northern Ireland Executive, which would allow the Assembly to go back and give us a functioning Government. They are vital to our future. They are, in the context of Brexit, critical to the peace process and to the peace, stability and economic prosperity of the United Kingdom. I am very pleased to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I regret to tell the Committee that the Liberal Democrats cannot support these amendments. Northern Ireland has already been without an Assembly, a devolved Executive and effective decision-making for far too long. We are only reluctantly supporting 21 October, as I have said, and our hope is very much that the Bill will not be needed at all.

As we have heard, there have already been nine weeks of constructive talks. Now is not the time to take that pressure off Northern Ireland’s political parties—in fact, we must keep the pressure on. We want devolved government restored to Northern Ireland as quickly as possible, and these amendments are not the right way to go about things.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, has just said—in contradiction to what Lord Cormack said. I would support his amendment if I believed there would be a benefit in going beyond 31 October to a date some time after Brexit. However, there is serious advantage in having a target date before the Brexit date. Many of us in this House think all sorts of complications may arise from 31 October, whatever format we leave the European Union in. A target date before then is therefore sensible.

As I said at Second Reading last week, it has been just over 1,000 days since the Dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly in early 2017. It has been a lot longer since the last vote on same-sex marriage, in which a majority of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of introducing it. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, I oppose this amendment.

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour

As indeed does the Labour Party. I understand the rationale behind the amendments. We are in the holiday season—marching season. There is no Prime Minister, there could well be a new Secretary of State and Brexit looms over everything. It is not exactly the best time to try to come to an agreement. I understand the logic, but my fear—expressed by other Members of the Committee—is that there is a problem of drift.

The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, referred to the Good Friday agreement; he will remember when Senator Mitchell said that he was going home on 10 April. He had had enough and put down a deadline. It was ultimately because of that deadline that the political parties and Governments in Northern Ireland eventually came to a conclusion. If we take away a deadline, we take the pressure off the parties and the Government.

The parties obviously have a huge responsibility in trying to ensure a resolution. As I said at Second Reading, the issues that they have to resolve in Belfast at the moment pale into insignificance compared to those that had to be decided 22 years ago. There is nothing preventing this happening other than basic mistrust. I worry that the whole thing will inevitably drift towards direct rule if we keep on extending.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

I can see the logic—and, indeed, the power—of the noble Lord’s argument about a deadline leading to a resolution. But can he explain why he is not taking exactly the same view on Brexit?

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour

That is because we are not dealing with Brexit at the moment, but with Northern Ireland. Had we resolved the Northern Ireland situation over the past two years, we would possibly have resolved the backstop issue. Had we done that, Brexit could have been much easier. However, the Government have not been negotiating well on either issue.

I do not hold huge confidence in our new Prime Minister—assuming it will be Mr Johnson—or his interest in Northern Ireland. However, I hope that the Secretary of State, whoever that might be, will be able to concentrate on the issues in front of us. The Irish and British Governments are joint guarantors of the Good Friday agreement. They must therefore do an awful lot more over the coming weeks to ensure that these dates are met.

We have suggested, for example, that there should be an independent adjudicator or chairman such as George Mitchell, and all-party meetings—not just meetings of the two parties—to resolve these issues. Above all, there must be constant pressure on the two Governments, who must constantly be present, at the highest levels in Belfast to resolve this situation. There is always a reason why we cannot come to a conclusion in Northern Ireland—there always has been: elections for this, elections for that, marching season or whatever it might be. We cannot go on like this. Of course, the Bill as it stands means that we can go on to January, though I hope we will not have to do so. But Parliament is losing patience in all this.

Decisions must be made in Northern Ireland by Ministers of one sort or another. I would be utterly opposed to the reintroduction of direct rule. As a former direct rule Minister, I always felt that I should not be taking those decisions. But we cannot go on like this. That is why the Opposition will support the Government on this issue and not, I fear, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and his noble friends.

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, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said that Parliament is losing patience. It is more serious than that. The people of Northern Ireland are losing patience with this process. In our Bill today, we seek to give a little more time—to extend the deadline that falls in August to October, with the potential for an extension onward to January. In so doing, we recognise the value of a deadline; it is required to ensure a consequence for those at the table if there is a failure. The first step, if there is indeed a failure, will necessarily be an election in Northern Ireland and thereafter, that step that none of us here would wish to take: towards direct rule.

My noble friend Lord Cormack puts forward his amendment in the correct spirit, as he always does in these matters. In many ways, I welcome what he is trying to do: he is exactly trying, as we have tried for some time, to give space for the parties in Northern Ireland to reach the necessary steps and conclusions to form an Executive. But there comes a point when you cannot keep kicking that can down the road. The parties in Northern Ireland must recognise that there can no longer be an absent Government, or a situation in which we here are called upon to do the bare minimum to keep ticking over the Government and governance of Northern Ireland.

I believe these deadlines give enough time for those parties to come together—and they are close together—and to reach the resolution they require. If they fail to do that, we will have to act. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has today travelled back to Northern Ireland to try to move these matters forward. There can be no let-up in the pressure or, indeed, the presence. I welcome the contributions of all noble Lords in this debate and previous debates to try to move these matters forward. Ultimately, this is a matter for Northern Ireland. While I understand the sentiment behind the amendment —to give that little bit more time and that safety valve, should it still be required—unfortunately, I do not on this occasion believe that that will deliver. Only a deadline will deliver, and I believe that deadline should be sooner rather than later. I recognise the landscape in which these deadlines fall; it is not where we wish to be.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

Is the Minister aware of what has happened with deadlines in the past in Northern Ireland, and that they quite simply do not work? Is he aware that the former chair of the talks, George Mitchell, said that there must be talking until they are ready to reach an agreement? That was the advice he gave to me when I was heading off as a peace envoy. We cannot set deadlines and expect peace to be made and talks and the Assembly to continue. Is the Minister aware of that?

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 fully aware of that, but I am also aware of how long there has been no government in Northern Ireland, and that that cannot continue. It cannot continue because there are things that need to be done: not the issues being dealt with inside those rooms, but issues such as health, education, schools and agriculture—the list recited by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, during our last discussion on the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said the same thing. We cannot allow this to continue. What we need now is good governance in Northern Ireland. This is an opportunity for those parties, within the extension foreseen in the Bill, to deliver on that. If they cannot do so in that time there will be consequences, and we must address those sooner rather than later.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 3:30 pm, 15th July 2019

I very much sympathise with the Minister’s sentiments and the logic of his arguments but, on the subject of focusing minds, may I ask him to consider that the Government have already docked Assembly Members’ salaries a bit? To be honest, I think that was water off a duck’s back. He should be willing to consider the funding that goes to parties in Stormont for their Assembly operations, together with their staffing allowances, which amounts to millions of pounds, and to say that if this continues, their staff will need to be given proper notice of the end of their service—and that that will be the consequence of failing to agree. That was something I did in 2006-07, and it did focus minds.

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

The noble Lord again brings his experience to the debate. We cannot keep funding futility, however that manages to manifest itself. There will be consequences if we cannot move these matters forward, and they need to be felt by those who are affected directly inside those rooms. I will take away the noble Lord’s point and think it over.

Photo of Lord Trimble Lord Trimble Conservative

My apologies for interrupting the Minister, but following on from what has just been said about salaries for people who are not doing what they should be doing, could that principle not be extended to the other end of the building? It would have a significant effect if it were, because for a certain party that does not send its Members to carry out their tasks in this building, that money is then diffused into the funding of that organisation as a whole. It would bring significant pressure to bear if we were to apply that principle to the other end of the building, and we would see quite significant movement as a result.

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

The noble Lord takes me into even deeper waters—and we are only in the first half hour of what may well be a long day. I understand the point he makes, of course; I appreciate exactly what he is saying. But that may be a discussion for another time. If he will allow me, I shall return to the amendment in hand.

With some regret, I say to my noble friend Lord Cormack that I hope he will understand that I am asking him to withdraw the amendment, not because it is not necessary to have time, but because we need to balance out that time—the carrot—with the stick of a deadline. We need to make sure that we are making progress to allow for the necessary secondary steps—an election to take place and so forth—in good time. Otherwise we will reach ever more frequent deadlines and anniversaries relating to the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland, which the people of Northern Ireland can, unfortunately, little bear.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I always listen carefully to what my noble friend says, but on this occasion I have to say that I believe he is making a mistake. The calendar is such that, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, pointed out, we are in the holiday season already in Northern Ireland, and we are about to enter a period of recess in this Parliament. We also have the looming Brexit date. Most importantly, elements have been injected into the Bill in the other place—we will be dealing with them later today—which create a much more difficult Bill and a much more difficult situation in Northern Ireland. These are highly sensitive and difficult issues. The very future of devolution as a concept is at stake. I believe that the dates that I suggest in my amendments would create a much more realistic timetable.

I am one of those who believe in the convention—it is certainly not a rule—that one does not normally vote in Committee in this House. In moving amendments I have always honoured that convention, and I will do so again today. However, I cannot promise that I will not return to this issue on Report in 48 hours’ time, when colleagues will have had the chance perhaps to reflect on the totality of today’s debate. I think they will then realise that a part of the United Kingdom that needs handling with acute sensitivity and that does not willingly respond to the deadline philosophy perhaps ought to be given a little more time. For the moment, though, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2: Limited power to further extend period for Executive formation

Amendments 2 to 5 not moved.

Clause 2 agreed.

Clause 3: Progress reports