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 Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 12:54 pm, 16th January 2020

My Lords, we on these Benches certainly welcome the Statement and the fact that the Assembly is up and running and that a new Executive have been formed. It has been a long time coming, but it is welcome. I guess that a buzz of activity will now return to the corridors of Stormont.

There can be little doubt that last year’s elections, for local government and the European Parliament and the general election, have contributed to this outcome. The people of Northern Ireland have made it clear, not only in switching votes away from the two largest parties but in what they told candidates of all parties, that they were fed up with the failure and intransigence of their elected politicians and wanted them to get back to work. They will now need to do so. However, it surely behoves all the parties to give priority to making up for lost time, commitment and resources on the fundamental issues in Northern Ireland.

For example, the figures for the health service in Northern Ireland are truly shocking and would be utterly intolerable if they were apparent on the mainland. The fact that nurses have been reduced to striking because of the of absence of a pay settlement—a strike that is unprecedented—is surely a demonstration of how dangerous the state of things has become. So it is welcome that priority has been given in the Statement to resolving the dispute and delivering pay parity. But I am sure that people, especially those in need of treatment, will want to see a rapid improvement in the delivery of healthcare.

The crisis in education is also serious. Most schools are in deficit and are having to appeal to parents for funds to provide the most basic of services and equipment, including such things as toilet rolls. On a positive note, having visited the Magee campus of the University of Ulster, I very much welcome the £45 million ring-fenced capital resource funding for a graduate-entry medical school and hope that, with agreement, this will go ahead. The university has said consistently that it is poised and ready to do so.

For us, it is particularly good to see our Alliance colleague Naomi Long take up the post of Justice Minister in the Executive. We offer her our heartfelt congratulations. Naomi has been a Member of the House of Commons and a staunch defender of the rule of law. She has often put her personal safety at risk to stand up to criminal and paramilitary elements in Northern Ireland. She will be a committed and effective Minister, and we wish her the very best in her new role.

I particularly welcome the news that integrated schools, such as Cliftonville Integrated Primary School and Glencraig Primary School, will receive a share of the £45 million school enhancement programme that has been announced. The community in Northern Ireland benefits greatly from educating children together. These are great examples of schools where children of different religions, traditions and cultures are welcomed and treated equally. I have visited integrated schools and can see the positive environment they create. Can the Government provide more information on steps that will be taken to improve community relations in Northern Ireland and how they will work with the parties to ensure there is a genuine shared future for all? The Secretary of State made clear that this was not just about getting the Assembly back but trying to move forward to a more positive future.

As the Northern Ireland protocol unfolds and Brexit moves into a detail phase, it is of course welcome that the people of Northern Ireland will have a voice and a seat at the table. But the challenges are immense, new funding is essential and we must avoid backsliding into the old ways. Can the Minister explain how the proposed UK Government-Northern Ireland joint board referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, will operate, who will be on it and what its authority will be?

In conclusion, we all welcome a fresh start. We do not underestimate the challenges of restoring normality or dealing with Brexit but sincerely hope that, rather than just a “New Decade, New Approach”, this will stick and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and the UK for the long term, and that we will not face the prospect of a collapse of the Executive and Assembly again.