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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:39 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:39 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, I begin where I think we need to begin. Everyone in this House are of the same view that we need to restore an Executive in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt about the importance of that, not just going forward, but for what could have been achieved, which we will never know. However, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been working tirelessly, and I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has recognised that. He has been straining every sinew to try to bring the two principal parties and all the other parties together. In response to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, we have made and will make every effort to bring the five parties together to move that forward.

The challenge, however, is that the obligations of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act fall on the shoulders of the United Kingdom Government early next week. While the Assembly may seek to convene—I do not doubt it will do so—and while I do not doubt that there may be a broader base of attendance than might have been expected, it is unlikely to be able to deliver on those issues that some noble Lords have wished it to do this evening for the reasons raised by my noble friend Lord Caine and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.

I say that with some regret because we all recognise the value of that. As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, this is a time when we would have valued that information. But I do not believe that, unless we make some serious progress on Monday, we will face anything other than the reality that the United Kingdom Government will take forward their obligations. That is how the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act was formed. We did so recognising that, once we had taken on the obligation, we would see it through to its fulfilment. Whether that is deemed right or wrong, it is the law of the land and is exactly what we will do.

I shall take some of the points in reverse, as that may be easier. In response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, about donations, the issue is that none of the parties has expressed any change in its view about backdating. The sister party of the Liberal Democrats here, the Alliance Party, has pushed strongest and most consistently for backdating, but other parties, notably the DUP and UUP, were keen for this to be a point going forward. Some of the other parties did not express a view on this, but none has changed its view. I am happy to write again to the noble Baroness with more details, but in the recognition that we need to bring this area to rest. I will write on that point.

My noble friend Lord Bates kindly brought the issue back to where we need to focus, for we are here today doing something that should be done elsewhere. As a number of noble Lords have observed, we have seen a deterioration of the situation in Northern Ireland, which is much to be regretted. The political vacuum that exists now will continue to be a problem. What we are doing here today is trying to address certain issues, in but a small moment in time. In truth, until an Executive is formed and the devolution situation works, we will not have adequate governance in Northern Ireland.

I hope that the deal spoken of by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, delivers for Northern Ireland. I hope that that happening will take away one of the principal obstacles to the parties coming back together. We should be under no illusion that Brexit has been a factor in the parties’ approach to the situation. It would be remiss of me not to point that out. I therefore hope that a deal will remove one of the stumbling blocks—not the only one—and allow those parties to return to government, but, at present, we look forward to that, rather than being certain that it will happen.

I now turn to the conspicuous and very serious issue that has been raised by a number of noble Lords. That is abortion. I state at the outset that I believe this matter should have been taken forward by a devolved Executive. I am happy to put that on record once again. It will not be so; it will be taken forward by us. We have debated this more than once, and I want to correct some of the statements that I believe have been made in error.

The five-month period we talked about is the most challenging aspect of this. At the outset, we need to recognise that abortions in Northern Ireland can take place only in a registered clinic. Some have said that this can simply be circumvented if there is but one NHS employee. That is not true. The clinic still has to be registered and the NHS employee taking part needs the permission of the NHS commissioners. That has to be done formally. Therefore, this is not carte blanche for people to create an opportunity in secret, whether in a front street, a middle street or a back street. It was not designed to be that and it will not be that.