Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:20 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Eames Lord Eames Crossbench 4:20 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, I too welcome the maiden speeches that were delivered a short time ago in your Lordships’ House.

In the Speech from the Throne a few days ago there were two references to Northern Ireland:

“Measures will be brought forward to strengthen devolved Government in Northern Ireland”— and then comes the rather telling phrase—

“and address the legacy of the past.”

The fact that those two sentiments are contained in close proximity is something of which I believe I have an obligation to remind your Lordships’ House in today’s debate.

First, on “strengthening devolution”, when devolution became a reality it was greeted throughout the western world as a wonderful experiment: a wonderful example of what was possible, which might one day be repeated across the globe in various segments. Devolution grew. It matured in many aspects but it taught us many lessons in others. Northern Ireland is part of that story, because there are good and bad aspects.

On the positive aspects, devolution for Northern Ireland has given a breath of fresh air to a new generation who can feel that we have an identity which will not be taken away by events further afield. It has given to Northern Ireland the stability to say that it is part of a bigger union. However, there have been detrimental effects. I have to say, with some degree of regret, that there is a widespread feeling in Northern Ireland at the moment that central government is somewhat removed from the realities of devolution. It is somehow removed because the 24-hour visit by statesmen from London when we are in need is so quickly forgotten, not in Northern Ireland but in London. There is a growing apprehension that the real needs of the small Province in the north-east corner of Ireland are not being acutely felt, despite what we welcome in terms of outreach to meet those needs. Therefore my plea is that, when we are looking at developing and increasing the power of devolution in Northern Ireland, Her Majesty’s Government take seriously the fact that there is much more to that relationship than simply structures. There has to be trust, collegiality and understanding.

On the second phrase, that the Government will attempt to address the legacy question, I speak with genuine personal feeling on this subject for many reasons. First, my career as the archbishop took place in the midst of the Troubles; I will take to my grave my memories. But secondly, I was part of the team which made the first attempt to address the legacy all those years ago. Together with Denis Bradley, we tried to give a formula which would in fact address the legacy. Since then, I have lost count of the number of times that institutions, Ministers and indeed Governments have come to say, “This is the answer to your legacy”, and yet, a few days ago, a coroner announced that 10 people shot during the Troubles were innocent—10 lives. They were from one section of the community, but 10 people who will never be forgotten by their family and relatives. To that I would add the numerous lives that have been lost on both sides, and I simply make this plea: no matter what the plans may be to address legacy—we have not had them disclosed—please be careful. Please think before you act, in particular about suggestions that would in fact push us further back rather than giving us hope to move forward.