Amendment 2

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 4:30 pm, 17th July 2019

My Lords, we have begun a debate today on the extension of Executive formation opportunities in Northern Ireland. I take the opportunity to return our focus to Northern Ireland for a brief moment. I do so recognising that precious few of the noble Lords who have thus far spoken chose to focus on Northern Ireland today. There have recently become a remarkable number of experts on Northern Ireland, but it appears they are not here during this part of the discussion.

It is no surprise that this is a challenging time for Northern Ireland. It had been our hope that by the coming August we would have secured a resolution and brought the parties together in such a way that an Executive could have been formed. I believe we are moving in the right direction; I now genuinely believe that there are real prospects of doing so.

This Bill has a very simple purpose. As it began its journey, it was simple and in very few paragraphs. We need a little more time, and the ambition is to extend that to 21 October, with a possible extension thereafter into January to allow for that Executive to re-form.

The request for updates on the talks in Northern Ireland is important; I do not doubt that for a moment. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, rightly says that Northern Ireland has been at the centre of so much of Brexit, but I must draw a distinction between Northern Ireland at the centre of Brexit as the border question has played through and the talks themselves. They need to be recognised as being in two different categories, and it is important to do so.

A number of noble Lords—not least the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who opened the debate—said that this is really not just about the reports. The debate that followed expressly shows that it is not just about those reports. He quoted Iris Murdoch. I am a big fan of Iris Murdoch. I was reading her book not long ago. Thinking about these reports coming in in small doses, there is a quote from The Sea, The Sea:

“One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats”.

Whether these reports will be continuous small treats remains to be seen. My fear is that those reports will not show a great deal because the discussions within that room are not particularly useful for wider debate at this time. But I dearly hope that we do not need this extension and that we will return to normal government in Northern Ireland. But I fear right now that it would be remiss of us as a Government if we did not seek to extend.

The amendments touch on much deeper issues than I am normally called on to talk about. It will not come as a surprise to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, that I have not received a call from Mr Johnson. Who knows? I might receive one next week. Who knows what is going on at this particular moment.

The important thing for me to stress today—and I do not think it is labouring the point—is that we need to be sure that when we speak of Northern Ireland we are clear in the message that we are sending to the people of that Province. The message that we send today with this particular suite of amendments is a simple one, which is that we can use Northern Ireland for different purposes when we choose to do so. I know that the rest of the debate will focus very significantly on the serious issues of Northern Ireland, but we have not started that part yet. This part is about a constitutional question and, as a number of noble Lords have said, it is about Brexit. So be it. I cannot change the motion in which we have moved in this particular direction. But a number of noble Lords have expressed their views on different sides. For me, the key thing is to keep us focused on the important aspect, which is the delivery of an Executive in Northern Ireland. That must be our principal aim. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.