Motion A

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Bill - Commons Amendment – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 22nd 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 3:30 pm, 22nd July 2019

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their brevity today. Last week was quite an odyssey, so I am very grateful for that. I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who described this situation as being very much like Alice in Wonderland. It is not: it is like Through the Looking-Glass, and we have an interesting point to consider. A quote from Humpty Dumpty springs to mind:

“‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less’. ‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’. ‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all’”.

We now find ourselves in a debate that is no longer about Northern Ireland; we have departed from that considerably. Those who say that Northern Ireland is just as affected are, of course, quite right, but this Bill is about the talks in Northern Ireland: we should not lose sight of that.

What I am most concerned about are the words of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who says that the very fact we are discussing this in this way may have an impact upon the talks. There may be unintended consequences of words meaning what we choose them to mean here but being heard in Northern Ireland in quite a different way. The real risk we face today is that last week we passed an amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, with some majority, to the House of Commons. What has come back to us is something significantly different: we have now moved beyond the idea of enabling the House of Commons to discuss these matters, to royal proclamations. We have gone beyond the notion of where we stand, to what we think we now ought to be able to control, and all this because we are anticipating what is in the mind of one of the candidates for the leadership of my party: that is all we are doing. Again, I come back to the point that this is about Northern Ireland’s talks process. We are here because we need extra time; because the talks have made progress but not enough progress. What we have done instead is conflate the talks in Northern Ireland, which have been challenging and have not gone at the pace I would have liked, with Brexit in all its manifest glory.

I am reminded of the law we are invoking today, dating back to 1797. The noble Lord, Lord West, is not in his place, but were he here he would remind us that in 1797 Great Britain won a great naval victory. Admiral Lord Duncan, a Member of this place at one time, secured a great victory at the Battle of Camperdown. Camperdown Park in Dundee takes its name from that noble battle. But 1797 is perhaps not a precedent we should be drawing upon just now: this Bill is primarily about restoring the talks in Northern Ireland. Instead we are attaching to it the desire of this place to frustrate the potential ambitions of one of the candidates in a leadership contest. I repeat, not in any way anticipating a call from either of the candidates, that it is important to stress that it would be presumptive of either of them to declare what they would do were they to be Prime Minister, because neither of them is Prime Minister. It is important that we keep focused, as we do today, on what the Bill is about.