Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019: Section 3(5) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:34 pm on 17th October 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 6:34 pm, 17th October 2019

More is the pity—of course a Speaker should be elected. We should have an Assembly and an Executive up and running in Belfast, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, whose experience in these matters is enormous, that it is not going to happen. However, this short debate is important to deal with the issues in the current Act—and to do so at the time we are debating it.

I have huge sympathy for noble Lords who have spoken about the issues that should be devolved, whether the sensitive issues of abortion and equal marriage, victims’ pensions or the university in Derry. These are all hugely important, of course, and people have different views on them, but I did not spend three years of my time chairing the talks on strand one of the Good Friday agreement, setting up the Assembly and Executive, not to agree with devolution. These things should be for the devolved Assembly and Executive, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, rightly said that is the only solution to this. It is a great pity that they have not been set up before today, because those issues would then be before the Assembly and Executive in Belfast—but it has not happened.

Looking at the events of the past 24 hours, I suppose one thing has changed with regard to how the Government deal with Northern Ireland. It was good to see the Taoiseach and Prime Minister in Cheshire and to hear that they talked on the telephone last night and that relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom are beginning to get better. But one of the tragedies of the past 1,000 days is that the British and Irish Governments could have come together more frequently, maybe delegated by the other 26 members of the European Union. I am convinced that had that happened, the two Governments would have been able to deal with the detail currently being dealt with and the talks would have been more serious than they were. The talks should have had an independent chair and involved all parties equally, and the two Prime Ministers should have bothered to go to Belfast more, because frankly it was farcical when they did. They made only day trips to Belfast, and you just cannot produce results like that. However, I hope they have learned how you can do things from the last week.

I make no comment on the deal other than this. If it eventually goes through, it is partly a result of the Irish and British Governments having actually started talking to each other properly. They are the co-guarantors of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. It is an international treaty lodged with the United Nations and should have been treated as such. We have had 1,000 wasted days with no shape, no structure and no form to the talks, but I am optimistic about the present Secretary of State. He is working extremely hard with his counterpart in Dublin and the political parties in Northern Ireland—which, at the end of the day, are of course key to all this.

I hope Sinn Féin decides that it will engage in proper discussions with the DUP on setting up the Assembly and Executive. I know the DUP plays a hugely important role in all these matters, but I remind your Lordships that it is only one side of the story. In all the arguments about consent we have listened and are currently listening to, both sides in Northern Ireland have to agree. The principle of consent—that you had to get them to agree—was the genius of the Good Friday agreement. I hope that is embedded in any deal.

There is some optimism about the restoration of the Assembly and Executive. If they are not restored, we will come back to this House time and again to deal with issues such as this, which should properly be matters for those elected in Northern Ireland. I still fear that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement has been seriously dented by the events of the past two or three years. It is a matter of great sorrow to me personally but, much more significantly, of great sadness to the people of Northern Ireland, who, quite frankly, deserve better.