Northern Ireland Executive Formation - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:54 pm on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 12:54 pm, 16th January 2020

This is a great and considerable achievement, and I place on record the Opposition’s congratulations, in particular to the Secretary of State, Julian Smith, who has done a fabulous job. He has worked at this extremely hard and in great detail. He really is to be commended for the energy and commitment he has put into achieving this. I also congratulate the Tánaiste and Foreign Minister of Ireland, Simon Coveney. After all, the two Governments brokered this deal with the others whom we must congratulate: the political parties in Northern Ireland, together with the civil servants, headed by Sir Jonathan Stephens, and the others who have made this a reality.

I have personal experience of talks in Northern Ireland. They are never easy. Over the past three years, I and others have been taunting the Minister about the slowness of progress in Northern Ireland, but the Statement brings us great hope. As I said, I congratulate him and his Secretary of State on it.

Some questions arising from the Statement still need to be answered. On the financial settlement, the Minister will be aware that the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister have both written to the Prime Minister with some questions on the £2 billion that the Minister mentioned. He knows, of course, that £1 billion of that is a result of Barnett consequentials that would have come to Northern Ireland anyway. Of the remaining £1 billion, I think that £250 million was planned to come as a result of the deal between the DUP and the previous Government. Can the Minister tell us whether, in his view, all the commitments in the settlement will be dealt with by that £2 billion?

A rather novel institution is also being created: a joint board between the Northern Ireland Executive and the United Kingdom Government. I have not seen this at all in 20 years of devolution, where spending has been subject, if that is what the case is, to a board that represents the reserved powers of the Government here in Westminster and, in this case, in Belfast. Perhaps the Minister could elaborate on that.

We have of course been discussing Brexit in this House for some days. Only yesterday morning, we looked at the issue of Brexit and devolution. I am glad that there will now be a Northern Ireland Executive at the table dealing with the negotiations over our leaving the European Union. However, I hope that, bearing in mind that debate yesterday, that presence at the table will be meaningful and that the Government will actually listen to the Northern Ireland Executive, as I hope they will listen to the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government as well.

One of the central parts of this agreement, of course, is cultural and linguistic matters. I am sure that the Minister would agree, being a Scotsman, that the Scottish and Welsh Governments would be more than happy to help the new commissioners in their jobs to ensure that we deal with these issues.

One thing that really is pleasing in the agreement is that there is now a constitutional and legal mechanism, which I hope will be dealt with pretty quickly, that means an Assembly and Government cannot collapse in the same way they did three years ago. This mechanism will ensure a greater guarantee of stability for those institutions in Northern Ireland.

Despite the questions I posed to the Minister, I congratulate him and the Government on a really great breakthrough.