Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 7:33 pm on 29th November 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Lord Caine:

Moved by Lord Caine

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Deputy Chairman of Committees, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

My Lords, before I move to Bill itself, I first thank noble Lords from across the House for their good wishes on my appointment. I am pleased to see in the Chamber this evening a number of noble Lords with whom I go back many years.

It is also a great pleasure to stand across the Dispatch Box from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. The noble Baroness was a very popular and highly regarded Minister during a difficult period of direct rule in Northern Ireland, while the noble Lord served two distinguished terms as shadow Secretary of State. I look forward to working with them both, as I do the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, on his return to this House, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for the Liberal Democrats. Whatever differences we might occasionally have on points of detail, I am committed to maintaining a bipartisan approach, which has served Northern Ireland so well over many years and under successive Governments.

I also place on record both my own personal support and that of Her Majesty’s Government as a whole for the 1998 Belfast agreement, the constitutional principles it enshrines, all the institutions it has established and the rights it guarantees across the whole community. I first became directly involved in the affairs of Northern Ireland some 33 years ago and well remember the misery, death and destruction caused by totally unjustified and unjustifiable terrorist campaigns, and of course the security response that they necessitated. I for one will always salute the heroic service and sacrifice of the men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and our Armed Forces.

The fact that those dark days are now mercifully almost a quarter of a century behind us is in large part down to the success of the 1998 agreement and its successors. It has been the bedrock of the progress achieved in Northern Ireland over recent years, and protecting it must be at the heart of everything we do. This Government will not take any risks with the hard-gained relative peace and stability ushered in by an agreement that remains an inspiration for so many across these islands and the wider world.

While of course that agreement is not beyond change and improvement, as has occurred a number of times through successor agreements and with further changes in this Bill, its principles are enduring. Not least of those is the consent principle, which guarantees Northern Ireland’s integral place within this United Kingdom for so long as that is the wish of a majority of those living there—a constitutional position that I, as a Conservative and a unionist, strongly support and on which I will never be neutral.

To strengthen the stability and effective functioning of the devolved institutions established by the 1998 agreement is the core purpose of the Bill before the House. It does so by implementing a number of the commitments made by Her Majesty’s Government in the New Decade, New Approach document of January 2020: extending the period for the appointment of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive following an election; enabling Ministers to remain in office and carry out functions for a period after the First and Deputy First Minister have ceased to hold office or following an Assembly election; reforming the use of the petition of concern in the Assembly; and updating the code of conduct for Executive Ministers in accordance with a request from the Northern Ireland Executive and in line with the recommendations around transparency and accountability in New Decade, New Approach.

That document was, of course, arrived at in the weeks immediately following the decisive general election result of December 2019, in which voters in Northern Ireland made very clear their desire to see Stormont return. The document was instrumental in securing the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. Yet the document itself was the product of almost three years of painstaking negotiations under three successive Secretaries of State following the resignation of Martin McGuinness in January 2017 and the subsequent collapse of the institutions. They were three years in which Northern Ireland was effectively left in a state of political limbo, with no functioning Executive or Assembly and with civil servants able to take only limited decisions.

I know from personal experience just how deeply frustrating a period it was, including many late nights, long hours and false starts. Many of the measures in New Decade, New Approach, and subsequently in this Bill, are designed to avoid a repeat of this. As a result, the Bill is fairly narrow in scope, though I appreciate that noble Lords in this House with a vast wealth of experience in Northern Ireland might want to make some broader points that go beyond the confines of the legislation before us.

I turn to the clauses of this short Bill. Clause 1 amends Sections 16A and 16B of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by extending the time available to appoint a First or Deputy First Minister following the resignation of either, or after the first meeting of the Assembly following an election. Currently, the period for ministerial appointments is only seven days after the First or Deputy First Minister ceases to hold office, or 14 days after an Assembly election, after which the Secretary of State is by law bound to set a date for another election within a reasonable timeframe.

The Bill extends the period for filling ministerial offices to a six-week period that is automatically renewed, unless the Assembly resolves otherwise on a cross-community vote, for a maximum of three times up to a total of 24 weeks. This is designed to allow more time for discussions between the parties and to facilitate a resolution of issues and avoid the need to rush headlong into another election. It will also give some parties the opportunity to reflect on whether they wish to be in the Executive at all or, alternatively, to go into opposition.

Clause 2 will enable existing Ministers to remain in post following an election until the end of the 24-week period for appointing new Ministers, rather than ceasing to hold office automatically on polling day as at present, or for a maximum of 48 weeks since a functioning Executive was in place. This is designed to provide for greater stability and sustainability of the devolved institutions and for continuity in decision-making, thus avoiding the scenario I have described following the effective collapse of the institutions in January 2017, when Northern Ireland was left with little or no governance.

Clause 3 amends Section 32 of the 1998 Act which currently requires the Secretary of State to propose a date for an Assembly election in two scenarios: first, where the Assembly resolves to dissolve itself by a two-thirds majority, and, secondly, where the existing period for appointing all Executive Ministers, including the First and Deputy First Ministers, expires without those offices being filled. This Bill places the Secretary of State under a duty to propose an election date as soon as is reasonably practical and within 12 weeks of either scenario having taken place. This provides greater legal certainty over the date of an election than at present. Clause 3 also allows the Secretary of State to certify or call an Assembly election at any point after the end of the first six-week period for appointing new Ministers if he considers that there is not sufficient representation among Ministers to secure cross-community confidence in the Assembly.

Clause 4 substitutes a revised ministerial code of conduct which sets out expectations for the behaviour of Ministers, including provisions around the treatment of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, public appointments, the use of resources and information management. This is an excepted matter and, as such, exclusively for Parliament, and follows a request from the former First Minister and Deputy First Minister, with Executive approval.

Clause 5 reforms the petition of concern in the Assembly to reduce its use and restore it to its original intention in the 1998 agreement. The Bill keeps the existing threshold for triggering the petition at 30 Assembly Members but introduces a requirement that they must be from two or more parties. Once lodged, any petition will have to be confirmed after a period of 14 days’ reflection. The Bill limits the matters in which a petition can be lodged and prevents the Speaker and deputies from signing.

Finally, Clauses 6 to 9 deal with repeals, extent and commencement.

Nobody claims that the Bill will be a panacea should we again be in the unfortunate situation in which the devolved institutions come under severe political strain. It does, however, contain important safeguards against a situation arising in which one party can simply crash the institutions and leave Northern Ireland effectively with limited or no governance at all.

The Bill faithfully implements the commitments of the UK Government as set out in New Decade, New Approach to make the devolved institutions more resilient and more sustainable, so that they can continue to focus on delivering for the benefit of the whole community in Northern Ireland.

Successive surveys and the 2019 general election demonstrate—I think conclusively—that inclusive, power-sharing devolution within the United Kingdom is the preferred form of governance for most people in Northern Ireland. That is also the Government’s preference, and we are determined to do whatever we can to make devolution work in order to build a brighter, stronger and more prosperous Northern Ireland—a Northern Ireland where politics works, the economy grows and society is more united. This short Bill takes a number of steps to help us on that course and, in that spirit, I commend it to the House.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) 7:43 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Caine, and want to be the first in your Lordships’ House to welcome him to his place at the Dispatch Box. We wish him well in his position and look forward to working with him. I thank him also for his kind and generous comments at the start of his speech, which were appreciated. I note that the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, is with him today. We have welcomed him at the Dispatch Box and his answers to questions, but I think I speak for the whole House when I say that we really do appreciate having a dedicated Northern Ireland Minister in your Lordships’ House. That has been lacking, and he is very welcome in that role.

I thank the noble Lord also for outlining the position and the clauses in the Bill. He is right: this is a short Bill—just nine clauses—but it is no less important or less valuable because of that. When it was introduced into the House of Commons, the Secretary of State described the objectives of the Bill as being to

“strengthen the democratic institutions of Northern Ireland and serve to build the people of Northern Ireland’s faith in their locally elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly.”—[Official Report, Commons, 22/6/21; col. 774.]

Few could fail to agree with such an objective.

Your Lordships’ House will understand the pride and commitment of the Labour Party to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which led to the establishment of the Assembly. There is also pride from all those involved, across the political spectrum, that despite the challenges along the journey to reach the agreement, it was so overwhelmingly supported by those living in Northern Ireland.

When the stability of those institutions has been threatened, or when they have been suspended, it is a failure. It is a failure of politics and politicians, but it is most keenly and sadly felt by those who live and work in Northern Ireland. Whatever the intentions, it has proved easier to suspend the institutions than to reinstate them after suspension. I speak from experience, having been told on one occasion that I would be going there as a Northern Ireland Minister for three months but returning home three and a half years later.

We welcome the objectives of the legislation, which I think reflect commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement—as the noble Lord said—to improve sustainability and to increase transparency and accountability. But following the debates in the other place, I was struck that even those supporting the legislation were disappointed. There was frustration over missed opportunities in the Bill to make progress on commitments which have been allowed to stall. There was frustration over a lack of progress on parts of the New Decade, New Approach agreement. There was also frustration, which I am sure he will understand, that it has taken so long to bring a Bill forward, when the New Decade, New Approach agreement was signed off in January 2020.

This is where I hope and think that there is an opportunity for the Minister to be a real asset to the Government, because—I am sure I am not alone in thinking this—too often it has appeared that Northern Ireland has been pretty low on the Government’s list of priorities, and that decisions have been taken without recognising their full implications. I find it extraordinary that the Northern Ireland protocol was agreed, and continues to be discussed, without representatives from Northern Ireland being part of those discussions. I thought the Prime Minister was far too casual and, not unusually but unforgivably, uninformed about how Brexit and the protocol would impact Northern Ireland trade and Northern Ireland politics. So there is a direct read across from the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s casual approach to Northern Ireland—I am not implicating the Minister in this; I hope he can do something about it—and the instability we see in the institutions. Those cannot be separated, and the connections cannot be ignored.

The Government need a broader commitment that goes beyond the legislation. If we genuinely and deeply support stability, that commitment has to run through all actions and all policy-making, and it has to be total. Northern Ireland cannot be considered as an afterthought to policy-making or as a means just of holding on to government.

Turning to the provisions of the Bill, as my colleagues, the shadow Secretary of State Louise Haigh and Alex Davies-Jones, were clear during debates in the other place, there is room for improvement. I appreciate that, while taking on board suggestions, the Government resisted any changes for improving the legislation in the other place. However, this is where I am an optimist in life, as I always remain hopeful that Ministers—particularly a new Minister who has real knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland, as the noble Lord, Lord Caine, does—may have reflected further on this.

One of our concerns about the cause of instability is when agreements are made but full implementation remains elusive. In the other place, we raised the issue of ensuring the full implementation of the NDNA agreement. We also raised parts of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement which have not been, or are currently not being, fulfilled, including the Bill of Rights and the Civic Forum. I do not know whether the Minister is able to give the House an update today on the Government’s plans to legislate on the Irish language protections and cultural package which are part of that agreement. If not, I hope he will be able to do so during the course of the Bill’s passage, or indeed write to noble Lords. The Government have previously made commitments to bring legislation forward if agreement or legislation was not achieved in Stormont by the end of September, but we have not had an update on next steps to date.

The Minister will be only too aware of the concerns raised over the delayed timing of the Bill. MPs were concerned that, after an already long delay, the Bill would not be out of Parliament before Christmas, and here we are, almost in December and just starting the Second Reading this evening.

I am sure the Minister is aware that, in the other place, there were helpful conversations about whether the two-month commencement period provided for in the Bill could be truncated or removed. It will be helpful if we can return to those discussions and conversations as the Bill progresses—and there are other issues we will want to seek clarification on or explore further with Ministers.

As the Minister outlined, the Bill provides that Ministers will no longer cease to hold office after the election of a new Assembly for two specified time periods, which certainly makes sense in terms of the stability and continuity of decision-making, and confidence in the institutions. We are all aware that, at times, civil servants have faced an almost impossible situation of having to operate without political direction or ministerial cover. There is nothing in the legislation about the extent of or limitations on the authority of so-called caretaker Ministers. Could it be the case that a Minister remains in office having not stood for election or, indeed, having lost their seat? Can the Minister say more about the limitations, guidance or instructions that will be in place?

My understanding from the answers given in the other place on this issue was that Ministers understood that this would be an unsatisfactory position but better than the alternative that currently exists. I would like to see greater clarity on that and, indeed, on whether we can do better. As a former direct rule Minister who was not elected by anybody in Northern Ireland, I understand and fully appreciate the difficulties here and support the principle of the Government’s approach, but we need to probe and seek a bit more information about how this is intended to work in practice.

On Clause 4, can the Minister confirm where responsibility lies in enforcing the Ministerial Code? He will know that in the UK Government it lies with the Prime Minister, and yet, when an independent investigation reported that a Minister had broken the code, the Prime Minister’s judgment was that they had not, and it was the commissioner who left office, not the Minister. I do not advocate that any breach of the Ministerial Code should result in a ministerial resignation or sacking, and I have suggested changes to the code here to change that, but I am seeking information from the Minister as to where responsibility lies for the enforcement and implementation of the code. Also, does the Minister consider that Clause 4 can play an important role in the management of caretaker Ministers? Again, we will want to probe the operation and extent of the code on that.

On petitions of concern, the Government have been clear about the intention of the clause and it has our full support. It is a limited reform that seeks to return the mechanism to what was originally intended. However, the Minister will be aware of the other vetoes that have been used to block agenda items from even reaching the Executive or have prevented discussion on issues of cross-community concern. Is there any more he can say about this, even if he is not proposing to include anything in the Bill at this stage?

Finally, this is a very modest Bill, but it is significant. The Government could have been bolder, and there are issues that we will want to probe further in Committee, but we welcome the proposals that have been made and look forward to deliberating further and in detail.

Photo of Lord Dodds of Duncairn Lord Dodds of Duncairn DUP 7:53 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and join her in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord, Lord Caine, to his place as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. He has a lot of experience; I am sure he did not need to read up much on his brief, given that he has written so many of them in the past for other Ministers. He is a truly dedicated Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. As has been said, it is good to have a Minister who is dedicated to Northern Ireland, not just in terms of being a specific Minister but a Minister who is truly, in his own right, dedicated to the best interests of Northern Ireland.

I warmly welcome what he has said this evening about his position and, indeed, that of the Conservative and Unionist Party on the union. Of course, we all join in his tribute to the members of the security forces, the RUC, the Army and the UDR, and all those who paid the ultimate sacrifice or suffered life-changing injuries and still live with the scars of the violence and the protection they gave to all the communities in Northern Ireland over the period of the Troubles.

I want to make a few general comments and raise a few issues on the specifics of the Bill. The first general comment is that we welcome the Bill in so far as it goes; there are improvements that could be made, as has been said, and we will look at those in Committee, but it does implement certain aspects of the New Decade, New Approach agreement that was made some three years ago. There are many other aspects of the NDNA agreement that will be for another day—other pieces of legislation both in the Assembly and here—but one thing that the people of Northern Ireland will be looking for is to ensure that all aspects of NDNA are progressed, that certain issues are not picked out for special treatment, and that everything is brought forward.

In that context, it would be remiss not to raise the commitment that was given by the UK Government in annexe A, paragraph 10, on the integrity of the UK internal market, which, as we know, has been breached by the Northern Ireland protocol. It is important that, as we see progress on aspects of NDNA, we also see progress on that commitment, and that the Northern Ireland protocol is addressed in a way which brings stability to the institutions in Northern Ireland; we have yet to see that happen. Of course, discussions are continuing and we are aware of those negotiations. People said that there could not be any renegotiation; effectively, that is what is happening. People said the original form of the protocol had to be rigorously implemented; we have seen that bypassed. That is all good—it is progress—but the current discussions cannot be strung out much longer. We know the time has almost run out for those discussions, and by the end of the year it will have run out completely.

Action will have to be taken, either in the form of an agreement between the European Union and the Government, addressing the issues that are outstanding in all aspects—both constitutional and economic—or in the form of UK action to fully restore Northern Ireland’s position in the internal market and its constitutional integrity. The invocation of Article 16 may or may not be part of that, but it can be only part of it, because it is not a solution in itself.

If neither of those happens, unionists in the Executive will of course be in a completely untenable position, where the political processes and the political balance will not exist in terms of the institutions. That will have the inevitable consequence of making the institutions which we are debating here tonight inoperable. One thing is certain: it cannot be dragged out to the next election, or even to a time when this Bill may be a matter of law, because things will come to a head before that, and certainly by the end of the year.

I want to come on to another general point about the Bill and the context in which we find ourselves. The Government have said that they are legislating here for those parts that cannot be legislated for in the Northern Ireland Assembly. These are matters that are excepted, but the Government must be consistent in their approach, and it appears to many people in Northern Ireland that there has not been a consistent approach in terms of when and in what circumstances government here legislates in the devolved space. We see it in terms of the cultural package, for instance, where there is no agreement on the timing of its introduction for the reasons that I have mentioned—the protocol and so on—and yet the Government are proceeding without that cross-community agreement in an area which is exclusively devolved.

I gently ask the Minister to address the point about the inconsistency of the Government’s à la carte attitude to legislating in the devolved area, where there does not appear to be a lot of logic and where talk about ensuring the stability of institutions can be at variance with some of the actions that are being taken in that regard.

Coming on to some aspects of the clauses in the Bill, the Minister has outlined the provisions in Clauses 1, 2 and 3, in relation to the appointment of Ministers in circumstances where Ministers can remain in post after an election and so on. In the other place, there was a lengthy discussion about the powers and competences of temporary Ministers who would be in place after an election or if the Executive had collapsed. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline in more detail how we will ensure that Ministers do not overstep the mark or that we do not end up in a situation where civil servants are effectively running the show again. It is a tricky balance—it is a difficult balance—but Northern Ireland went through a very difficult period over three years when the institutions were collapsed as a result of the resignation of Sinn Féin from the Executive, and we do not want to see a similar situation.

The Minister recalled the provisions where the Secretary of State can call an election after the first six-week period to give effect to the purpose of paragraph 3.15 of Annexe C of NDNA, as mentioned in the Explanatory Notes. Can he expand further on the precise circumstances in which that power would be used? The Secretary of State can call an election if two-thirds of the Assembly vote for one, or if the time limits have run out to form a Government. However, there is also this power, which is where they think that paragraph 3.15 of Annexe C of NDNA justifies it. I would be grateful for more explanation of that point.

The Ministerial Code had widespread agreement among the parties in Northern Ireland, but I would be grateful if the Minister could outline how it compares to the situation here in London in terms of the provisions and where it differs from the provisions governing Ministers’ activities and behaviours here in Whitehall and the statutory basis that exists here for any enforcement or measures taken against a Minister for breach of the Ministerial Code.

On the petition of concern, again there was protracted debate among the parties about this. Of course, there has already been a change to the operation of the petition of concern because, when the numbers in the Assembly reduced from 108 to 90, the threshold for activating the petition of concern remained at 30, so that change has already made it more difficult to have a petition of concern by default. In recent years, people have ramped up the attacks on the petition of concern—notably, those parties who agreed, in the Belfast agreement and the original 1998 Act, to this whole structure of the petition of concern—and criticised its use, although it has been used by all parties, particularly in the welfare reform debate, where the SDLP and Sinn Féin used it quite a bit. Interestingly, this has only become a major theme as a result of the unionists in the Assembly having lost the majority due to the reduction in the number of seats per constituency. It is important that there are those safeguards.

The Minister referred to the original purposes of the petition of concern, but can he—or, indeed, other Members who will speak in this debate—point to a specific reference in the Good Friday agreement or the Northern Ireland Act to the actual purpose of the petition of concern? There is none. This is continually stated as a matter of fact, but there is no reference in the Good Friday agreement or the Northern Ireland Act to the specific purposes that have sometimes been ascribed to it by people who speak about the subject.

The reason why the petition of concern was brought in is because it was genuinely felt, on both sides of the community and among the political representatives at the time, that there should be some safeguard mechanism. Actually, when you think about it, when the withdrawal agreement and the agreement on the protocol were made, the first thing the Government did was strip away that safeguard. Instead, the vote on whether the protocol should continue to be implemented became a straight-majority vote in case it might have been defeated. The single vote of any real significance—possibly the only vote—that can happen in the Northern Ireland Assembly by a majority vote is one on the Northern Ireland protocol. Everything else is a cross-community vote or susceptible to being turned into one. That is not lost on the unionist community, I tell you, with them having been told for decades that majoritarianism and majority rule were unacceptable. So when we come to the petition of concern, we recognise that there is room for improvement, but there have been reforms and we need to bear in mind its original purpose.

This Bill is not all that controversial in itself and will, no doubt, be subject to changes, criticism and debate in Committee. However, it comes at a time when there are massive stresses and strains on the institutions in Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol; as I said earlier, they will have to be resolved before we go much further. No amount of legislation, whether it is this Bill or any other, will piece together things if they unravel. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, rightly said, things are much harder to put together again after they unravel than they are to keep together as we try to work our way through all these problems. Time is short, and I hope that the Government will soon be able to bring forward proposals to deal with the issues with the protocol that underlie all our problems at the moment.

Photo of Lord Godson Lord Godson Conservative 8:07 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, I wish to share in the pleasure in the appointment of my noble friend Lord Caine, whom I have known for many years. It is a welcome tribute to the continuing importance of genuine expertise and institutional memory that he should be standing here tonight introducing this Bill. I pay tribute to him for that and share in the pleasure of noble Lords and the noble Baroness.

On a sadder note, I think of someone known to many noble Lords here tonight: Sir John Chilcot, who died last month. He was, of course, one of the longest-serving Permanent Secretaries in the Northern Ireland Office, with service in relation to Northern Ireland from the earliest days of the Troubles when he was in the Home Office. I mention him specifically because he once said something to me—and to many other noble Lords, no doubt. In the run-up to the Belfast agreement, as the peace progress was gaining momentum, he said, “We had a choice between good governance and peace—and we chose peace.” After that gap of time, tonight’s legislation constitutes something of an attempt to tidy this up and ensure that there is good governance. That is why I stand in support of this Second Reading along with other noble Lords.

One of the great might-have-beens of recent history in Northern Ireland is that, had this legislation been in place at the time of the collapse of the institutions back in early 2017, there would still have been a First Minister and Deputy First Minister in place later that year for the debates on the introduction of the Northern Ireland protocol. I think it is fair to say that the results might have been very different, had those institutions been working on a cross-community basis, because we would not have had a situation on the island of Ireland where only one entity there—the Government of the Irish Republic—had a say throughout the process and was able successfully to weaponise the protocol in that period against the UK Government. The Irish Government certainly were able to do that when they were able successfully to trash the UK Government’s position paper in August 2017.

There would also have been a contesting voice from the unionist community the following month, when the EU stated its position on the UK Government’s paper and on the provisions of the Belfast agreement. It was notable that this imbalance and asymmetry would not have taken place had the institutions been up and running and this legislation been in place at the time. That would have been a welcome development and we would have had greater balance in all that. In concluding, I note the words of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, who spotted this at the time of the withdrawal agreement of 2018. He said

“had the Assembly been up and running and had the Executive been working, the nationalists and unionists would have had to come together to resolve the issues that currently”—[Official Report, 6/12/18; col. 1122.] bedevil them. There is no better statement than that. It would also have been the case that the principle of equal citizenship across these islands would have had a greater level of surety had the legislation proposed tonight been in place then.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated 8:10 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Godson, and welcome the noble Lord, Lord Caine, to the Front Bench on Northern Ireland affairs. I have worked with the noble Lord, Lord Caine, on many occasions going back many years. Probably the first time that we worked together was on the visit of Sir Patrick Mayhew, then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on 19 June 1994 to Loughinisland. He came to meet my predecessor MP, Eddie McGrady, and all the various families who had lost loved ones in a very untimely, brutal and callous way. That was a visit that they, and we, deeply appreciated. I wish the noble Lord well in his new position. I also welcome my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, who served as a Minister in the direct rule Administration, and my noble friend Lord Coaker, who was shadow Secretary of State, when they were in the other place.

The most important thing for me, as a democratic Irish nationalist, in coming to this debate is that we are particularly zealous about wanting to build that shared future, respect for political difference and parity of esteem. For me, that was encapsulated in the three sets of relationships embodied by my late friend and former leader John Hume, and became that noble agreement, the Good Friday agreement, on 8 April 1998. I never forget the sense of hope, expectancy and excitement on that day in Castle Buildings. That agreement was between the British and Irish Governments, as co-guarantors, along with my party, the Ulster Unionists and other parties. I know that some parties were not there because they had absented themselves, but the basic tenet and central to the core of the agreement was that infrastructure and architecture that provided the framework for people to work together with respect, mutual understanding, trust and confidence in each other.

We are in no doubt—I talk on behalf of my colleagues here on the Labour Front Bench and in the SDLP—that we want to see the fulfilment of that expectancy and to use the architecture of the Good Friday agreement to work together in partnership, reconciliation, parity of esteem and respect for difference. Those are the kernels we urgently need to build the political stability and resilience of government.

I welcome the legislation, but there are certain areas for improvement, and I have already spoken to the Minister about them. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and others that the commencement date needs to be foreshortened and that the sense of urgency needs to be fed into this legislation to ensure that it is on the statute book fairly quickly—because in Northern Ireland we need that political stability.

Parties such as Sinn Féin and the DUP have talked about taking nuclear action to provide political stability. We had examples of that back in June, with Sinn Féin declaring that it might not nominate a deputy if it did not agree with the DUP’s nominee first. We then had the DUP threatening—shall we say—institutions over the protocol. But, by trying to create political stability, they are in fact creating political instability. So I tell them: in the good interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, that is not the way forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, referred to the protocol. I support the protocol, but there is a need for mitigations—I am in no doubt about that—and the European Union has provided them in its papers to the UK Government. There is also a need to promote the benefits of the protocol: for example, in the survey that the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry carried out some days ago and that was published at the end of last week, 70% supported that. Queen’s University Belfast takes this view in its recent poll, as does the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool. That is part of the political context, so could the Minister provide us with an update on those negotiations between the UK and the EU? He—in his former state—and the noble Lords, Lord Empey, Lord Dodds and Lord Hain, were all members of the protocol sub-committee, and we agreed our first report and achieved consensus. But the important thing is that we arrive at a position that provides the very best for the people of Northern Ireland in trade, jobs and opportunity.

Other issues provide that political context. All the parties in Northern Ireland fundamentally disagree on the Government’s proposals on legacy issues because we all believe that they need to be victim centred. Will the Government respect the wishes of the parties and remove the amnesty proposal? The Minister may disagree with the use of the word “amnesty”, but, to us, that is the way it can be best characterised.

Other areas from NDNA are outstanding, and the Minister will be aware of them: the whole area of rights, language and identity proposals. I thought that, whenever the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive had not brought forward those proposals, the UK Government were to do so by October, but we still have not had any legislation in relation to that issue. There is information about the progress on the civic advisory panel and, of course, the Bill of Rights, which we have been talking about. On Friday, I met Amnesty International in Downpatrick, and it is active in this respect but anxious that there has not been a Bill of Rights. In Northern Ireland, all that we can do on many issues is talk about them—we are not good on the doing—so, if the Minister could pursue the Northern Ireland Executive in relation to those outstanding issues, that would be useful.

Generally, I support the Bill, but I felt that several areas could be built on. There is now an opportunity to move forward on the following areas and return to that vision in 1998 that created the infrastructure and architecture to manage differences and be able to realise a better shared future, based on partnership in Northern Ireland.

I go back to the position in 1998 about the appointment of Ministers and the purpose and intention of the GFA on the equalisation of titles: the joint election of First Ministers. I believe that there is some divergence from the concepts of the Good Friday agreement, on restoring the joint nature of the First Minister’s office, which was changed by St Andrews and was a centrepiece of strand one. That is what parallel consent was about. I understand why things did not happen at St Andrews, such as the Assembly collectively nominating the First Ministers who would then be accountable to it. There is a three-Minister provision that is causing a logjam in the Executive office and prevents Ministers bringing forward productive and progressive legislation because it is thwarted by one of the bigger parties. That issue needs to be addressed as well.

The Good Friday agreement and the 1998 Act were destined to build reconciliation, partnership, equality and parity of esteem, but that was thwarted at the next stage at St Andrews. I feel that we need to revert to the original principles and purpose, and I hope, with colleagues, to bring forward amendments in Committee about the equalisation of titles and the joint election of the First Minister.

Political, economic and social stability and sustainability will ultimately not come from rules and procedures. Yes, they are required but, finally, they will come from people in Northern Ireland believing, understanding, having confidence in and accepting that sharing power with their neighbours is the right thing to do and does not negate or diminish their identity. We knew that as far back as 1973, with the first power-sharing Executive arrangement. I was 15 years of age at that stage, and I remember feeling a sense of excitement and hope. Sadly, that did not last all that long. I hope that the matters related to the protocol can be resolved and, while I accept the main provisions in the Bill, I would like to think that the Minister can look at the outstanding areas and work with the Northern Ireland Executive to bring about a resolution.

I return to what a political commentator said—this is my final comment—on journal.ie in February 2020. He said that NDNA was not short on political ambition. Many of us thought it was a document of aspiration, but then it comes back to the willingness of parties to implement it and to underpin the power-sharing parity of esteem to fulfil the needs of a modern, progressive society that has been hit by the outworkings of a hard Brexit and Covid. The people of Northern Ireland have been hit by Brexit, long waiting lists, Covid and the need to recover from the pandemic. When you meet people and talk to them, they want access to a hospital bed, surgery and investigations that lead to diagnosis. Those are the issues that matter to them most, but they want respect for political differences. I accept the provisions in the Bill. I believe that they can be built on by going back to the 1998 agreement to look at the principles of duality of collective responsibility in the election of joint Ministers.

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP 8:24 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, first, I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to his position. Having served for more than 30 years in the Northern Ireland Office, he is eminently qualified on these matters and has considerable understanding of the issues that the people of Northern Ireland face.

The Bill, though far from perfect, has my party’s support, as it goes some way towards delivering on items agreed in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. Due to the nature of institutions at Stormont, decision-making can be a slow process; a conversation about reform will perhaps be a debate for another time. Any coalition Government made up of parties with diametrically opposed political ideologies will always be challenging. Ultimately, it is about people’s willingness to get together to try to find a solution that works. In Northern Ireland agreements to date, consensus decision-making has been built in and seen as the priority over a simple majority system. In negotiations and in the daily operations of the Stormont institutions, consensus is essential in achieving successful outcomes.

On petitions of concern specifically, in the past there have been incidents where the mechanism has been misused. On other occasions, the tool has been used in a way that reflects the reality that on some key issues there is no consensus. In some instances where a petition of concern has been used, this is a clear indication that an issue has been pushed forward without any real agreement. For this reason, I support the provisions proposed in the Bill—namely, the idea of a 14-day cooling-off period for petitions of concern. Stability is required, and the 14-day period in this Bill is welcome, as it would allow a period for people to find agreement and a way forward.

The main objective of devolution was to give the people of Northern Ireland a say on legislation that affects their lives; it allows them directly to elect their decision-makers and hold them accountable. When dealing with issues related to Northern Ireland, we must be mindful of this. If significant amendments or changes to agreements are planned, or new legislation is introduced, the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives must have a say. In our deliberations, we must seek to respect the devolution principle and the principle of consent which underpins it, rather than attempting to breach it.

We cannot discuss the real-time realities of Northern Ireland at this time without acknowledging the threats presented economically and constitutionally by the Northern Ireland protocol. Northern Ireland’s representatives and the rights of the people they represent are being undermined by the protocol and the imposition of its Irish Sea border. With the latest comments from the CEO of Marks & Spencer, and previous comments from other leading supermarkets regarding trade in Northern Ireland, the negative effect on the import of goods from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland is there for all to see. Regrettably, policymakers in Brussels and elsewhere are either blind to or ignorant of this.

I hope for practical solutions, which would see the removal of the Irish Sea border and the integrity of the UK’s internal market fully restored. However, inaction cannot be allowed to cripple businesses in Northern Ireland. Many small and medium-sized businesses rely on the supply chain from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and the present uncertainty is destroying livelihoods in many instances. Those who support the protocol are not only calling for the long-term integrity of the UK internal market to be put into serious question but prioritising the 23% of Northern Ireland’s trade that is with the EU over the 77% of the trade that is with the rest of the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The volume of domestic trade between all parts of the UK highlights the importance of finding a workable, long-term solution that protects everyone. What we have at present is unsustainable. The uncertainty caused by the protocol breeds instability, which in turn can unfortunately lead to hostility. The people of Northern Ireland have suffered enough.

When we discuss the institutions of government, we look at the agreements on which they are built. The most fundamental pillar of the Belfast agreement and subsequent peace agreements is the principle of consent; Northern Ireland’s devolved settlement is based on that. However, the protocol has set that principle aside and undermined the very institutions that we are seeking to improve.

Many people in Northern Ireland feel that these regulations, which have been imposed upon them, run contrary to everything that they understand about democracy and the democratic principles that underpin Northern Ireland’s society. The people of Northern Ireland did not consent to spending more for goods, waiting longer for medicines or becoming second-class citizens within this United Kingdom.

It is regrettable that after so much progress in our society, in our politics and in Northern Ireland’s economic attractiveness on the global stage, this protocol risks taking us backwards. Does the Minister agree that we need to see a workable solution to this issue soon, and can he confirm whether it is the Government’s intention to set a deadline for the end of these negotiations with the EU?

It is quite clear that invoking Article 16 is rapidly becoming a necessary response. I support the Bill and I trust that it will go some way towards achieving stability in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 8:31 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, I join others in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Caine, to his new role.

When it comes to day-to-day politics, Northern Ireland, for all its particular issues, encounters many of the same problems as your Lordships’ House and the other place. Last week the Green Member of the Legislative Assembly, Clare Bailey, joined many others in speaking out against the accelerated progress of a finance Bill without adequate scrutiny. Last week independent research discredited Edwin Poots’s exaggerated figures about the costs of a cross-party net-zero climate change Bill, led by Clare Bailey, which rather reminded me of your Lordships’ House hearing some exaggerated figures on sewage costs.

Our other Green Member of the Legislative Assembly, Rachel Woods, was meeting with the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, noting that far more needs to be done to ensure that the voices of young people are heard. Among the things that the youth forum has called for is votes at 16, something that young people in Scotland and Wales of course enjoy—a call that has been backed by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People.

So there are similarities, yet we also have some real contrasts here that I think are interesting and possibly have some broader lessons for us. The legislation before us is based on New Decade, New Approach, an attempt to address the issues of the functioning of the Northern Ireland Executive exposed by experience. This is looking at a constitution, seeing a crisis and producing a planned and thought-through response. What a contrast to Westminster. It should not need a crisis for us to look regularly at a constitution and consider ways in which it might be updated; the constitution here in Westminster has not been updated significantly since women got the vote. So that is a different way of approaching a constitution—or at least part of a way. If we look across the border at the Republic of Ireland, there we can see how citizens’ assemblies and people’s constitutional conventions showed a way in which participatory democracy can effectively deal with and settle difficult political issues, as it did on both abortion and equal marriage.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, talked about the people being better consulted. The Library briefing on the Bill notes that the New Decade, New Approach deal was agreed by the five main Northern Ireland political parties. It does not talk about consultation with the people. None the less, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, said, we seem to have some progress here —not sufficient issues are being dealt with, but at least some are.

However, there are many things that the Bill cannot deal with. The Minister talked in his introduction about the need for the economy to meet the needs of society. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, talked about the hit from Brexit, as many other noble Lords have, along with NHS waiting lists and the level of NHS services.

I want to add to that a report out today: a truly, deeply, shocking report from Action for Children, which found that more than a quarter of working parents in Northern Ireland expect to take on extra work or forgo time off to pay for Christmas, and that most of them will miss at least one key family event in that process. This comes after last year’s Christmas was cancelled by Covid.

Another report a week or so back showed that among the families hit by the £20 cut to universal credit in October, two-fifths are likely to cut back on heating and one-third are likely to skip meals, while 20% said that they expected to go to a food bank. I note that eight out of 18 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland rank in the bottom third of the UK for children living in low-income households, and that the two-child limit for universal credit is felt particularly acutely in Northern Ireland.

We are tackling some constitutional issues here. But, as the Minister himself acknowledged, there are many other ways in which Westminster needs to provide more support to Northern Ireland to tackle the issues it faces, including constitutional ones.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 8:36 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, before I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Caine, on his promotion as Minister, with his long service in Northern Ireland I hope he will be able to bring much greater understanding to the Northern Ireland Office, which I once had the privilege to lead with some of the finest-ever civil servants and advisers. As things stand under the stewardship of the present Secretary of State, I am sorry to say that it will certainly need that.

As a former Secretary of State I, along with other noble Lords across this House who worked for many years to establish stable political structures in Northern Ireland, will support efforts in this Bill to safeguard power sharing and improve the sustainability of the Executive and the Assembly. There were hard lessons to be learned following the collapse of the Executive in 2017, and during the three long years until their restoration with the New Decade, New Approach agreement at the beginning of 2020. In so far as the Bill represents a sensible evolution of the arrangements for the appointment of Ministers following an Assembly election, or in the event of the resignation of the First or Deputy First Minister and restores the original purpose of the petition of concern mechanism, it should command the support of the House.

My serious concern, however, is that the legislation which the Government agreed to implement nearly two years ago will come too late to deal with the political crisis that will inevitably ensue if the current leader of the DUP carries out his threat to bring down the Executive and Assembly over the entirely predictable outcome of the Brexit deal negotiated and agreed by this Government—namely, the Northern Ireland protocol to the withdrawal agreement. There is no shortage of ironies in this potentially disastrous scenario. The DUP would bring down the painfully hard-won Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly over Brexit, which is way beyond its competence to deal with, and the political representatives of the people most adversely impacted will be kept out of the room while the negotiator-in-chief who got them into this shambles in the first place has another go. This is not an oven-ready Brexit; it is an Eton mess.

There are other aspects of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which the noble Lord, Lord Caine, helped to negotiate, that are yet to be implemented—one of which, we are told, will imminently be legislated for—which cause me great concern. The NDNA agreement promised that within 100 days from 9 January 2020 the Stormont House agreement of December 2014, which set out the structures to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past, would be implemented.

Although noble Lords will have their views on the efficacy of the Stormont House agreement, it is an agreement not least between the UK and Irish Governments. On 18 March 2020, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced in a two-page Written Ministerial Statement that the Government were unilaterally repudiating the agreement. There was no consultation with the victims and survivors sector in Northern Ireland, who are most directly affected, no consultation with the political parties in Northern Ireland, and no consultation with the Irish Government.

Fast-forward to July of this year, and the Government produced a Command Paper which in so many ways is the most shocking document I have come across in my 50 years in politics and in government. It proposes what is, in effect, a blanket amnesty which would include those who carried out some of the most unspeakable atrocities imaginable during what is still euphemistically called the Troubles. It would halt all court proceedings on crimes related to the Troubles, both criminal and civil. It would halt all inquests, even those currently listed for hearing. It would say to traumatised and still-grieving victims that what happened to their loved ones is no longer of any interest to the state, and it says to the perpetrators that what they did to those victims is no longer of any interest to the state—and this from a Government who purport to respect and uphold the rule of law. These proposals are legally dubious, constitutionally dangerous and morally corrupt, in my view. I am raising it here in an effort to get the Government to think again before the Bill is brought to Parliament.

On 24 October 1990, Patsy Gillespie, who worked as a civilian cook in an army base, was chained to the steering column of his van, which had a 1,200 lb bomb placed in it. While his wife and young family were held at gunpoint, he was made to drive the van to an army post. He shouted a warning but, while he was still in the driver’s seat, the bomb was detonated, killing Patsy and five soldiers. No one has been made accountable for this horrendous crime and, if the Government have their way, no one ever will be. The police in Northern Ireland are convinced that one of those responsible is today part of an active dissident republican group in Derry/Londonderry. If the legislation as currently proposed is enacted, who do you think will sleep easier in their beds: Patsy’s wife, Kathleen, or the people who turned her husband into a human bomb? Could any of us look Kathleen in the eye and say: “I voted for a law that will offer succour and protection to the men who robbed you and your children of the love of your life”? I could not, and I urge the Government to think again before their Bill is presented to Parliament.

In our joint letter in September 2018, a cross-party group of Peers, each with direct ministerial or parliamentary experience in Northern Ireland, suggested another way forward. So does Operation Kenova, so ably headed by former Chief Constable Jon Boutcher; having observed how Kenova is working, my thinking on dealing with legacy issues has evolved. In essence, Kenova prioritises an information-recovery process rather than a prosecutorial process, but—and this is crucial—it leaves open prosecutions if the evidence uncovered sustains those.

Victims and survivors will be properly served only through a criminal justice process that is compliant with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. I urge the Secretary of State, through the Minister, to change his proposals and follow a Kenova-type model, or I predict his amnesty for some of the most terrible crimes will face certain defeat in your Lordships’ House.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 8:43 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, like others, I am pleased to see my noble friend Lord Caine on the Front Bench. He has laboured long in the vineyard and it is long past time that recognition for that effort was given—I think we are all of one mind on that in this place. We are also delighted to see the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, on the Labour Front Bench. The noble Baroness was an excellent Minister during her time there and, while the noble Lord did not manage to exercise power in Northern Ireland because he was appointed Admiral of the Fleet before he got that opportunity, we have nevertheless got a pretty good team, with plenty of experience.

This Bill, to be honest, is a bit of sticking plaster, along with many other pieces of legislation that come along. What we are actually doing is trying to fix holes in the bucket that have been created by people who just do not behave properly. We will go into a lot more detail in Committee, of course, but I want to make a couple of points.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, made the telling comment that commitments are made and then not delivered. That, unfortunately, is a feature and has been for some time, so it is important to know who makes these commitments. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, pointed to the Library note, while page 2, paragraph 1 of the Explanatory Note says:

“This Bill will deliver aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal which was agreed by the five main Northern Ireland political parties”.

That is not true. Paragraph 6 says that the five main parties, which it names, entered into a power-sharing Government

“following their agreement to the New Decade, New Approach deal.”

Again, that is not true. My party has never agreed to New Decade, New Approach.

In fact, on 16 January 2020, when my noble friend’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, was in post, I made that point to him. When he referred to it

“as a basis to re-enter devolved government”,—[Official Report, 16/1/20; col. 841.]

I said in response:

“That is not true. This is not an agreement. It is a government Statement and a Statement of the British and Irish Governments collectively. It was shoved into our hands at 8.30 pm last Thursday.”—[Official Report, 16/1/20; col. 850.]

That was 36 hours before the Executive was reformed. We took our positions in that Executive based on our rights under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, not under the New Decade, New Approach agreement. It is necessary to correct that because, with some of the commitments in New Decade, New Approach—for example, on cultural and language issues—the structures envisaged are basically grievance factories in the making.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, referred to the legacy issues. We have never supported those; we never supported the Stormont House agreement either. It is important that we get our facts straight. We will obviously have an opportunity to tease out some of these issues in greater detail in Committee, but I thought it was important to say that.

The issues about petitions of concern and so on, as well as the commitment to keeping the institutions going, are driven by the fact that people just have not used common sense. Take the Assembly from 2011 to 2016: there were 115 exercises of the petition of concern; 86 of them were initiated by the DUP, 29 by the SDLP and Sinn Féin, and two by my party. That pattern extended to shielding Ministers from sanction even by departmental committees—come on, that is just out of control.

The Bill tries to patch up and fix abuses of the system. One can see why. If people walk out through the front door for political purposes and bring the institutions down, I can understand why it is necessary to try to build in some safeguards. But equally, if we say that somebody can be in office for 48 weeks—effectively a year—without clarity on what they can or cannot do, and indeed against any democratic principle, is it fair or reasonable to expect them to hold office under those circumstances? Can you imagine the situation here if we had that? I do not think it would go down terribly well. I understand that they are trying to keep things held together, but that is because they loosened the glue that held the agreement together in the first place—that is why we have the problems that we have.

We will come to a lot of that detail again when we come to Committee, but it is important to recognise that any institution built on a diplomatic agreement and a diplomatic document will always be under stress. The point has been made about a coalition of five parties. It is not easy; those of us who have been in them for a number of years will know. We can imagine what it would be like if we put Bill Cash and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, together in the one Government; multiply that by what we have to deal with and you get some sense of how difficult it is.

One has to have a different approach than simply implementing things à la Westminster. That is undoubtedly the case. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, rightly pointed out, you have to understand where we were coming from in the late 1990s and what had happened. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, gave us a very vivid example of the backdrop to how the agreement was finally put together. To those who have been saying that Brexit had to be implemented on the basis of a 52% to 48% vote, I remind people that 71.2% of the people supported the agreement. That is a big majority.

That leads neatly on to the comments made by a number of noble Lords about the protocol. People have exceptionally short memories. The protocol is the embodiment of the border in the Irish Sea. It is the legal framework to give effect to the border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have to remember where that came from. That border in the Irish Sea was proposed by the Prime Minister on 2 October 2019 in his document. He proposed border inspection posts and that all goods coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain would be subject to inspection and to EU rules. If that does not bring in the European court, I do not know what does. This is an entirely self-inflicted mess within our own United Kingdom. Sadly, the Prime Minister was not without endorsement for the proposal at the time. The fact is that that is the genesis of it. You cannot expect to fix it without going back to the fundamental points as to where it came from.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, and others mentioned this legendary Article 16. Article 16 of the protocol, which is part of the withdrawal agreement, is a safeguarding mechanism for the protocol. It is a safety valve so that, where issues arise, renegotiation takes place on a very limited number of articles, Articles 5 to 10. The people who negotiated those are the same people sitting at the table today. I was given a Parliamentary Answer last week by the noble Lord, Lord Frost. It was only a one-liner, but it spelled it all out. He made it very clear that, even if Article 16 is triggered, the remainder of the protocol is unaffected.

Some unionists have latched on to Article 16 as some kind of a way out. Friends, it is not; it is a way to protect the protocol. The only way out is to have an amended treaty. We have to have a treaty because we have a trade treaty with the European Union, and the only way we can effectively deal with that problem is with a new or an amended treaty. Article 16 merely deals with mitigations, welcome though some of them may very well be.

That is a bit of background to the circumstances in which we find ourselves back in Northern Ireland right now. I hope we can make improvements to this legislation. A question for my noble friend is: when will the other piece of legislation we are anticipating come forward? I have no doubt at all that he will give us a chapter and verse on that when he comes to reply.

A number of people have said there are things they would like to see changed, and so on. Even though we may not be particularly agreeable to some of the proposals that are coming forward, we are duty bound to listen to what people are saying. If something is concerning them, we have to listen to what they are saying. If we are not prepared to do that, there is no point criticising everybody else, or criticising the Government for ignoring people or for shoving a piece of paper into your hand 36 hours before you are asked to put your hand up for it. That sort of negotiation does not work. We have to listen to people and to be prepared to negotiate in good faith—it does not mean you agree but at least people would get their opportunity to put their case and have it respected.

Photo of Lord Hay of Ballyore Lord Hay of Ballyore DUP 8:55 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in welcoming the Minister to the Dispatch Box. I have no doubt his experience working in the Northern Ireland Office will have prepared him well for his brief here. I wish him well in his new role.

I broadly support the Bill before us. It reflects what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach, where there was agreement on a wide range of issues. While there may be disagreement regarding some aspects of that agreement, the Bill presents an opportunity for us to strengthen the legislative framework—to make the institutions in Northern Ireland more workable and more stable. Equally, it is the case that the Northern Ireland Assembly is the place for discussion and debate of issues that relate directly to the daily lives of people in Northern Ireland.

If we are to continue to move forward in Northern Ireland, we must continue to try to do so with some form of consensus. We must not repeat some of the mistakes of the past, where decisions were rushed through without much local scrutiny. We must not adopt a half-in, half-out version of the devolved settlement, whereby this Parliament is seen to be changing agreements, passing new legislation or bypassing the sitting Northern Ireland Assembly altogether. Such an approach would lead only to mistrust, discontent and disillusionment and, in the longer term, would only undermine devolution in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, spoke about the petition of concern in Northern Ireland. As a former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I can tell your Lordships that I saw that petition used by all the political parties in Northern Ireland. You would think from some party leaders now in Northern Ireland that they never used the petition of concern; it was only one or two parties. That certainly was not the case while I was Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is true that in some instances this mechanism was not used properly, nor as it was originally intended, but it would also be true to say that in many instances it was used purely because on some key issues cross-party consensus could not be found.

The Northern Ireland Assembly and the institutions of government, certainly since St Andrews, were built on the idea of consensus. It would also be true to say that there is certainly room for improvement in respect of this. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, we must remember that the parties of government in Northern Ireland are different not just constitutionally speaking but in that they come from across the political spectrum, from left and right. Any manner of coalition government with parties so different will always be very challenging.

The only way of moving forward and progressing is by getting round the table and finding consensus. The answer is not found by legislating for one party’s wish list, nor by bypassing the Northern Ireland Assembly altogether. The issue we have in Northern Ireland is that we have a party that does not believe in consensus but also believes that if it comes here, it will get what it wants anyway. That is the problem when we try to get consensus in Northern Ireland: we have a party that does not need to reach consensus because it gets what it wants here anyway.

I assure noble Lords that, where an opportunity presents itself to improve the scheme in a fair, balanced and appropriate way, we should take it. Where an opportunity presents itself to improve the quality of debate and discussion in a devolved setting, we should seek to take it. We want a devolved institution that works for all the people of Northern Ireland. We want a Stormont that offers good government to all the people of Northern Ireland.

The current situation, brought about by the Northern Ireland protocol arrangements, is, as ever, deeply regrettable. The protocol continues to damage Northern Ireland economically and constitutionally; I stress “constitutionally” although it has had a serious effect economically as well. The barrier to trade between parts of our United Kingdom damages internal business, lacks cross-community support and fundamentally undermines the core principles that underpin the democratic structures in Northern Ireland. We hold our discussions about changes to our institutions at a time when the future of those same institutions has been threatened by the ramifications of this flawed arrangement.

Only by fully restoring the integrity of the United Kingdom internal market will the political, economic and social stability of Northern Ireland be safeguarded. I say this to the House: do not underestimate the strong feeling that there is in the entire unionist community on the Northern Ireland protocol. We would be fools to try to write that situation off because there is strong unionist opposition to what is going on in Northern Ireland. If the EU insists on imposing a border in the Irish Sea, the Government must fulfil their commitments to protect Northern Ireland and its people. Triggering Article 16 is only a start, and needs to remain a real option. The people of Northern Ireland rightly expect the Government to act decisively on this. Does the Minister agree that the time has now come for decisive action to end the current uncertainty around the Northern Ireland protocol?

Photo of Baroness Hoey Baroness Hoey Non-affiliated

My Lords—oh, sorry, I did not see the noble Lord there.

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 9:02 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, I rise to support the Bill and to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Caine, to his position. It is wonderful to have in this House somebody with so much expertise on this subject and so much genuine, heartfelt concern for the people of Northern Ireland and their future prosperous development. I am also glad to see here tonight the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, who was such a distinguished representative for his party as shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland in the other place.

First, I support the Bill’s basic principle: to provide further durability and flexibility to the institutions of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have one particular concern. It relates to new paragraph 1(1)(c), as proposed by Clause 4—titled “Ministerial Code of Conduct”—and the reference to Ministers upholding the Nolan principles. There is a pre-history here. I do not expect the noble Lord, Lord Caine, to be able to resolve it tonight because it is rather messy but the pre-history is that, in 2011, the then Government decided that it was not desirable for the Committee on Standards in Public Life have a role in the devolved regions, particularly Northern Ireland—or Northern Ireland in particular in the context of this Bill. As it happens, I became the chairman of the committee a few months later, after that decision. Nobody in Northern Ireland noticed that Northern Ireland had been removed from the sway of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Throughout 2013-14, Members of the Assembly constantly insisted that my committee play a role with respect to this or that issue—indeed, at one point, it gave evidence to a Select Committee in the Assembly on these issues—but we had in effect been removed.

There is one thought here. The issues that brought down the Assembly were in a sense Nolan principles issues. I completely agree with the observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Godson, earlier, reflecting on the remarks in this House of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, on 6 December 2018. He said that the collapse of the Assembly contributed greatly to what he saw as the deep flaws in the 2018 withdrawal agreement. The overall problem is the way in which that agreement—and you can also argue this about the 2019 agreement—is an imposition from the top down on the people of Northern Ireland. That was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. This is a dangerous and risky thing to do, and it was made much more possible by the absence of the Assembly in the years leading up to the 2018 agreement, and indeed the 2017 joint report that set in stone so much of what subsequently followed.

I cannot honestly claim that, if the committee on standards had had a role in Northern Ireland, it would have averted the collapse of the Assembly, because there is such a thing as the selfish strategic interest of a number of parties that helped to bring that about. However, I can say that it is now slightly airy and weak for there to be a reference in this document to the Nolan principles as being central to the functioning of Ministers, when the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the guardian of the Nolan principles, is not actually present in Northern Ireland.

I would like the Minister to inquire within government: is there any way this question can be looked at again? We seem to have lost something. We certainly lost something by the loss of the Assembly in the lead-up to the 2018 withdrawal agreement. That was the point made so powerfully that day by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy.

Before I conclude, I will make one point about the underlying principle of the Bill, which I strongly support, and one comment. The underlying principle shows that the UK Government are determined to achieve stability in Northern Ireland. Last Thursday I was speaking in Dublin at one of the Royal Irish Academy series of discourses, which started in the late 18th century. Afterwards I talked to a number of people involved in political and economic life in Dublin. What slightly surprised me was an idea in their minds that the UK Government were not committed to stability, that the current debate going on between the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and Maroš Šefčovič is not about real issues—well, I think they thought it was about real issues; everybody knows there are real issues, including medicines for Northern Ireland and so on—and that somehow there was no point in responding to the concerns of the United Kingdom Government because fundamentally they just liked and were addicted to having rows in and around these issues.

First of all, there are real issues and I do not think the UK Government are doing anything other than the correct thing in raising them. Indeed, the very fact that the EU has made substantial moves in response to the initiatives from the noble Lord, Lord Frost—moves that would not have been made absent his efforts—shows that there are real, substantive issues here.

The point I really want to make about the Bill is simple. It is coming from a Government who are much criticised but determined to defend the institutions of the Good Friday agreement. That is exactly how the Minister opened his speech tonight. It is about stability and maintaining the institutions in and around the Good Friday agreement. It sends out a clear signal that we do not wish or need to see these endless, difficult debates and threats to the institutions continue for ever. We want to see stability.

Photo of Baroness Hoey Baroness Hoey Non-affiliated 9:09 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, it is a genuine pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bew. I was getting rather ahead of myself. His knowledge of Northern Ireland is probably greater than anyone else’s in your Lordships’ House, so I apologise to him.

I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Caine. When I first came into the Lords last year, I was so surprised that there was no Minister for Northern Ireland. I absolutely welcome him and his remark at the beginning that he is a unionist and a pro-union Minister, and therefore, if there ever is a referendum while he is a Minister—I do not think that there will be one for a very long time, if ever—on Northern Ireland’s position within the union, I am sure that he will be out campaigning for the union, because nothing in the Belfast agreement stops that happening, and I was very disappointed that the shadow Secretary of State of my old party said that she would have to be neutral.

As many people have said, the proposed changes in the Bill have been made by the Government to try to improve the stability of Northern Ireland institutions and to improve transparency and accountability. It is rather ironic that we are talking about accountability when we have had discussions over the past few months on the protocol, where there has been no accountability. Along with all the unionist, pro-union parties in Northern Ireland, I am involved in the Court of Appeal action, which started again today—we had the first day. It is absolutely fascinating, and it is worth telling your Lordships what the Government have said today: they have gone back on their assertion that the Acts of Union are subject to implicit repeal, as they argued in court at the first hearing. Instead, they have suggested that Section 7A(3) merely suspends the Acts of Union for as long as the protocol exists. What an incredible suggestion. It suggests that the very legal contract that is the union—the Acts of Union—can be suspended as a requirement of the protocol. The implication is that, while the protocol remains, Northern Ireland’s position in the union is suspended. That is worth bringing to your Lordships’ attention tonight. I do not expect the Minister to respond on it, because he is clear that this about one area of legislation.

But it is also important that, as has been pointed out, the New Decade, New Approach agreement of January 2020 has, first, never actually been voted on or even debated in the Assembly. However, it is there and it is the agreement that we are working to—but this is only one aspect of it. I join with other noble Lords who have said that they want to know when the rest of it—the bits that actually make a huge difference—will be brought in. Some of the parties have been pushing particular aspects of it. It is very important that the Government do not look at one area alone but at the whole thing. The question of internal trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in particular is absolutely crucial. We have to get that legislation very quickly.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, said that this was a “sticking plaster”. I am afraid that, in my view, the Bill is just a further distortion of democracy in Northern Ireland. Ministers will now be able to stay in office for up to a year after the Executive collapse or are not reformed, while no new election needs to be called in that time. As he has said, not a single Lord or Member of Parliament would allow that to happen in any other part of the United Kingdom, so let us not pretend that we have a real, genuine democracy in Northern Ireland: it makes old-style direct rule look almost more democratic.

The Bill has a huge flaw because, if a particular party removes its Ministers, the Executive will then become lopsided and unsustainable as they fail to cover both communities. Remember: everything in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was about balance. It also reminds us of the nearly unsayable truth that the Belfast agreement’s reconstruction of Stormont is all about keeping republicans with the tent. It was Sinn Féin that pulled out for three years in 2017, leaving the Secretary of State in charge. That involved a new policy of punishing the citizens of Northern Ireland by refusing to make any changes or necessary reforms, thus requiring Westminster to legislate every six months to at least ensure the money supply. Will the Government give a commitment that, if this should ever happen again and the Executive were to collapse, this would not happen again—even if it does offend the Dublin Government?

Extending the purgatory just underscores the instability of the unworkable—in my view—system in Northern Ireland. It really is time to ask why this system is lurching from one crisis to another. We all know the answer, even if we do not want to admit it. It is very simple: Sinn Féin has a vested interest in instability. Why would it not? It does not want Northern Ireland to work. It does not want Northern Ireland to be successful. So we have the folly of a system that permits a Government only if a party that does not want Northern Ireland to work is at its heart—otherwise, there can be no Government. In my view, mandatory coalition does not work, cannot work and will not work. It is a recipe for perpetual, politically inspired instability.

Turning to the petition of concern, it was a safeguard to ensure that no one community could lord it over the other. The compulsory power-sharing arrangement that we have at Stormont could not operate without it, given that the previous majoritarian system has been deemed improper and inappropriate for Northern Ireland, unless the Government decide that it is useful, which is what they did with the protocol and the consent principle. So the petition has been used by both unionist and nationalist parties in legislation on the Floor of the Northern Ireland Assembly and, of course, it effectively stymies the Executive bringing forward reforms in many areas, since there is no advance cross-community agreement.

The case in February 2016, when the Assembly voted to remove the exception in fair employment law in relation to appointing schoolteachers, is a unique exemption from anti-discrimination law, applicable nowhere else in Europe—including no longer in the Republic of Ireland. The amendment, supported by the unionist and Alliance parties, passed, but a petition of concern was immediately invoked by the SDLP and Sinn Féin, and the reform was blocked. So let us not think, again as has been said earlier, that it is only one side that does petitions of concern.

However, concerns over the use of the petition of concern mask the reality that the Assembly can never legislate for reform. As a result, that task is almost exclusively exported to this Parliament. I instance past examples: welfare reform, abortion and gay marriage—in fact, all the gay reforms since initial decriminalisation in 1982 have come from here. Irish language and legacy legislation will be with us over the next year and inevitably many more will depend on Westminster finding the time to do what Stormont cannot or will not.

No matter the changes in this Bill, the basic difficulty remains: the two communities have different interests and often different ways of looking at things. A Bill of Rights is one such issue. It is worth reminding noble Lords that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement did not promise a Bill of Rights, and certainly not an all-singing, all-dancing one, as so many nationalists still demand. The agreement’s terms were met when proposals from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission were forwarded in 2008 to Shaun Woodward, the then Secretary of State. They suggested 80 new statutory rights; he found that they were inoperable and inappropriate and had no cross-community support. The proposal duly fell and will not be revived via the Belfast agreement, no matter how many investigations are held in the Assembly.

So it is time for clarity and honesty. Your Lordships’ House is the only assembly where Northern Ireland reforms are debated and perhaps amended. The other place is where the Government bring in their ready-cooked Northern Ireland Bills to Parliament, once they have decided what needs to be made law. I will just say briefly, on the case of legacy, which we are all going to have to talk about and discuss soon, and the Northern Ireland Office’s July Command Paper, with its proposed statute of limitations—which is actually an end to the whole Troubles criminal investigations—that this is the final capping of a process in train for 25 years. We have had more than a dozen partial amnesties since the 1998 Good Friday agreement, starting with the early release of prisoners, those guilty of the grossest abuses of human rights. In the terrible case of Patsy Gillespie, which the noble Lord, Lord Hain, mentioned, if the person had been got for that at the time, probably now they would be out on a royal pardon or some other way in which those guilty of the grossest abuse of human rights—murder—have been let off.

Those many parts of amnesty have been advocated, proposed and agreed by the Irish and British Governments in the past, so I find it a little surprising that the Irish Government are getting so angry about this when, in the past, they have gone along with it and asked for it. We will have to discuss this legacy Bill at some stage, but I hope that people will look at the past and the history of it before they make their decision.

Finally, I hope that nobody in your Lordships’ House will believe that the central problem of what is happening in Northern Ireland legislation, Stormont and the Assembly is resolved by this legislation. This House remains the legislature for Northern Ireland; that is the reality. Maybe it is time to recognise that those of us who were integrationists all those years ago may have had a point.

Photo of Lord Rogan Lord Rogan Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 9:20 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, I will be brief and make just some general points about the Bill this evening. I, too, warmly welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box and congratulate him on his well-deserved appointment. We from Northern Ireland are very aware of and appreciate his commitment to Northern Ireland over some 30-odd years. He is well acquainted with the hostelries in Hillsborough. I cannot think of any previous Minister, either here in your Lordships’ House or in another place, who has taken up post in the Northern Ireland Office with such a deep understanding of the brief and the Province of Northern Ireland. I wish him every success in his new role.

I support the Bill before us today which is, of course, a consequence of the New Decade, New Approach deal. However, I find it disheartening that, more than 23 years after the Belfast agreement was signed, most of the Bill’s provisions are necessary. I well remember leaving Castle Buildings on Good Friday 1998 with a real sense of hope that, at long last, normal politics would be coming to Northern Ireland. Yes, everyone, certainly at a political level, appreciated that there would be teething problems. More people tragically lost their lives at the hands of terrorists—29 people died and 220 were injured in Omagh—just over four months after the agreement. Devolution itself was also suspended on several occasions in those early years when my noble friend Lord Trimble held the position of First Minister. But it was still hoped that serious political upheaval in Northern Ireland would soon join the Troubles in being consigned to history. Instead, we saw Sinn Féin/IRA collapse the Assembly in January 2020, depriving local people of devolved government for three full calendar years. For most of 2021, we have witnessed a never-ending series of threats from the DUP to bring down the institutions as a means of distracting from the fact that the Prime Minister had betrayed them on Brexit, including by imposing a loathsome regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want good government and want the Assembly to work. They have had enough of public skirmishes between Executive Ministers and the impression that too many decisions are made for party-political reasons rather than for the public good. I share the fear expressed by some, including my own party leader, Doug Beattie, that, should the institutions be brought down again in the coming months, they will not be coming back any time soon.

With the Assembly elections a little over five months away and with uncertainty growing over what Her Majesty’s Government and the European Union may or may not do in relation to the protocol, we can be sure that more choppy waters lie ahead for Northern Ireland. However, should the institutions survive these challenges, and if a new Executive and Assembly can be established next year after those elections, I hope that MLAs and Ministers will choose to concentrate their energies on working together to deliver for all communities in Northern Ireland, with no more stunts, no more walkouts and no more need for legislation such as the Bill before us tonight.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP 9:24 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Caine, to his ministerial office and wish him well. I have no doubt concerning his unionist credentials and know that he will treat everyone in this House with respect and integrity.

Having listened carefully to the debate thus far, I wish to make a short intervention. The legislation before us today is to deliver some aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, which was agreed when the Executive was formed and the Assembly returned in January 2020. The New Decade, New Approach deal was to be a package of measures that were to be implemented simultaneously. However, it seems that the Government wish to cherry pick parts and cast aside others at their pleasure.

Devolution in Northern Ireland has been seriously undermined in recent months. Indeed, many view the devolution settlement as thrashed by actions in this House and the other place when very sensitive matters that were clearly devolved issues were legislated for, over the heads of the elected representatives of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland. This was done on the first occasion under the disguise and pretence that the Northern Ireland Assembly was not functioning. Indeed, legislation was hastened through Westminster because the Assembly was about to be reconvened, and it was perceived that the legislation promised to appease Sinn Féin/IRA would not get through the Assembly’s democratic process.

However, this was not the only time the devolution settlement was violated. It happened at the whim of the Government, aided and abetted by the opposition parties in this House and the other Chamber, to appease the republican demands of Sinn Féin. So much so that many in Northern Ireland, including the original architects of the Belfast agreement, now believe that it has been seriously breached, most recently under the protocol deal with Europe, a protocol that grievously undermines Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said that the protocol is not consistent with the principle of consent enshrined in the Belfast agreement. Indeed, he said the Irish Sea border demolishes the key premise of the 1998 Belfast agreement and rips the heart out of it. This is in spite of the assurances from Europe, London, America and so on, and even in this House, that nothing will or can be done to undermine the Belfast agreement. What they really mean is that nothing must be done to upset Sinn Féin, as its demands are of paramount importance. They are about to add to this with a cultural deal made over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland, once again taking away from the authority of the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is in spite of the Prime Minister’s promises that

“nothing will affect the position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. We will make sure that we uphold that.”—[Official Report, Commons, 30/6/21; cols. 263-64.]

Time is running out for the Government to reverse the mistakes of the Northern Ireland protocol. The majority community within Northern Ireland are not willing to allow their constitutional rights to be scrapped to appease republican-leaning politicians in Europe. Under the Belfast agreement, the people of Northern Ireland were promised that they alone through the ballot box would have the final say concerning the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. In recent opinion polls, it is clearly evident that the vast majority right across the community cherish Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom, desire to remain a full and vibrant part of the United Kingdom and reject the republican vision of a united Ireland.

Yet under the protocol, this position is fundamentally changed. It is clear that the protocol is dismantling the union and the unionist majority are not willing to sit on the sidelines and permit this to happen. No unionist worth the name supports the protocol. It is time to take a stand. This Government had better listen to the will and wish of the people of Northern Ireland and remove the protocol, for it must go.

Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 9:29 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, I too congratulate the Minister on his appointment to the Northern Ireland Office. He and I first met, I believe in the Red Lion on Whitehall, when I was a young researcher for the Liberal Democrats and he was working as a special adviser to the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew. Our paths then crossed again in 2010 when we were two of the more mature—indeed, probably the two oldest—spads in the coalition Government. I wish him well on his appointment at what I am certain will be both a challenging and hugely important time for politics in Northern Ireland. I hope that this will turn out to be a very positive chapter in the book which we all hope he is going to write.

Last night I was re-watching the documentary about the Blair-Brown years, and I was reminded that this delicate peace process in Northern Ireland requires leadership, bravery and commitment. It needs to be nurtured and based on trust and respect among the political players. This is something I believe the Minister truly understands, with his many years of experience. He will also understand that, right now, there are very real fears that in recent months the elasticity of trust in Northern Ireland has been stretched to its absolute limit.

From these Benches, we support the Bill but regret that it has taken so long to get to this point—a point made so powerfully by the noble Lords, Lord Godson and Lord Rogan, this evening. It is now nearly two years since New Decade, New Approach was agreed by the majority of but—as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, pointed out—not all of the parties in Northern Ireland. I accept that we have all faced unprecedented challenges with the global Covid pandemic but, none the less, those were two wasted years when so much could have been achieved to consolidate the peace process and move on from the past—two years when so much more could have been done to improve healthcare in Northern Ireland, strengthen the economy, move forwards on integrated education and begin to deal properly with the legacy of the past.

While the Bill is welcome in so far as it deals with the governance aspects of New Decade, New Approach, it does not yet cover legacy issues, as other noble Lords have said. It would be good to hear from the Minister in his concluding remarks when he expects the Government to publish their legislation on legacy. However, I should add, like the noble Lord, Lord Hain, that we on these Benches could not support the proposals as they currently stand.

In terms of the Bill before us this evening, I would like to concentrate my remaining short remarks on two aspects. The first relates to the commencement of the Bill, and here I agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Smith and Lady Ritchie. My Alliance Party colleague Stephen Farry MP tabled an amendment in the House of Commons which aimed to accelerate the enactment of the Bill. Given the current febrile political context, does the Minister agree that it would be desirable to have these new governance measures in place as soon as possible?

The second area is that of designations. It is now more than 20 years since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement was signed. Life has changed hugely since 1998. Back then, it was understandable that governance structures were based on having designations for nationalist and unionist camps. The group of people who considered themselves to be “others” or non-sectarian then was really very small. But despite the current political tensions there, a 20 year-old in Northern Ireland today will have a very different world-view from people of that age back in 1998.

If politics in Northern Ireland is to move on to the next stage of its development, it is not unreasonable to begin to ask questions about how and when progress can be made towards a normalisation of democratic politics there. This Government’s approach to Northern Ireland has all too frequently been characterised by carelessness, crises and reacting too late to events. I hope the Minister, with all his experience, will help to steer a more considered path, and I look forward to debating the Bill in more detail in the weeks to come.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords) 9:34 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. It is good to hear the words that she had to say and the way in which she said them.

I join noble Lords across the House in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Caine, to his position. It is not only about his experience and knowledge; people think of his personal interest and desire to do something. It makes a big difference when people believe that a particular noble Lord or Minister has integrity in what they are doing, and that is something that he will bring to this role. He will know that I have said on many occasions that the people of Northern Ireland—indeed, many of their representatives here, including noble Lords—have often felt that it is a neglected part of the discussions that take place here. I think there is some truth in that, but with him as a Minister here I think people can be reassured, and that will go a long way towards helping with this situation.

I thank many noble Lords for welcoming me to this position. At the moment, I am merely off the subs bench for my noble friend Lord Murphy—but you never know where that is going to go. It is a privilege for me to wind up this debate for Her Majesty’s Opposition. As noble Lords will know, and as others have mentioned, I have had the privilege of the post of shadow Secretary of State twice over the years, first when Ed Miliband was leader of the Labour Party and then under Jeremy Corbyn—which was a challenge in itself.

I visited all the parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland—in fact, the constituencies of former Members of Parliament here. I did so not only to show a commitment but to try to gain a better understanding of the sorts of issues that we talk about here and to meet and talk to the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that, as a result of that, I better understand the challenges that there still are but also the way in which the determination and work of so many people here has led to huge amounts of progress. In rereading the history and in the visits that I made, I have always been struck by the way in which so many people, including many people here, overcame huge difficulties and challenges, things that I could not possibly comprehend in my own life.

I was thinking about when I went to Stormont and met Peter Robinson as First Minister alongside Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister in a functioning Northern Ireland Government. I know that a couple of years later, in 2017, the Assembly collapsed and did not function for three years, but many noble Lords and others spent those three years trying to restore the Assembly according to the principles on which it had been based. In January 2020—notwithstanding the point that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, made about the facts of it; I take that point—an agreement was reached by the majority in the New Decade, New Approach document. It is the implementation of that which we have been discussing today, and which indeed was discussed in the other place.

The Minister will know that the Bill has much support in this place, as we want it used as a springboard to move forward to the promise of a better future for all in Northern Ireland. Quite rightly, though, as many noble Lords have stated in this debate, there are issues of concern that will quite rightly be raised in Committee, not as a way of opposing what the Government are doing but to try to improve the legislation and take it forward.

To go back to the point about the noble Lord, Lord Caine, being the Minister here, I think people believe that he will listen to the debate and try to act on it. Whether that changes the primary legislation, who knows? But people will know that in the discussions that he has with civil servants, with people and their representatives in Northern Ireland and with noble Lords in this House, there is someone who will take account of what is being said to him and try to influence it.

Without going through every contribution, let me highlight a couple of those issues. The contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, are customarily thoughtful, whether here or in the other place; he highlighted the protocol, which I want to ask the Minister about. The noble Lords, Lord Empey, Lord Godson, Lord Hay, Lord Browne, Lord McCrea, and my noble friend Lady Ritchie, all in different ways raised the protocol. It is of fundamental importance to the context in which this debate is taking place. It is almost beyond how we have got to this point. We are here and if we want this to move forward and for the Assembly to function, unionists, nationalists and those of all strands of opinion must come together to find a solution. As my noble friend Lady Smith said, you would have thought that representatives from Northern Ireland would be involved in those discussions. I find that deeply disappointing.

The noble Lord, Lord Frost, is leading the negotiations for the Government. Can the noble Lord, Lord Caine, with his knowledge and understanding of Northern Ireland, say anything about whether his appointment will make any difference to the way in which those negotiations are taking place? He may not want to answer that or may not be able to, but people are saying that this cannot just carry on without some acknowledgement of the difficulties that it is causing and how to overcome them without upsetting nationalist opinion or part of unionist opinion.

Can the Minister undertake to speak to the noble Lord, Lord Frost, to ensure that he is aware of the discussions and the points that have been made by so many noble Lords in this debate on the seriousness of the situation? I know that he understands the seriousness, but what will he do about it in representing Her Majesty’s Government in negotiations that are taking place between the UK and the EU, and the impact that those negotiations have on Northern Ireland? To be fair, I do not expect the Minister to be able to say that he will do so, but can he undertake at least to talk to the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and emphasise the importance of this? That might provide some reassurance.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, made a really important point about new paragraph 1(1)(c) in Clause 4 and how upholding the Nolan principles relates to the Committee on Standards not applying to the devolved Administrations. I am sure that the Minister will take that forward. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Godson, for his reference to my noble friend Lord Murphy, who is not well enough to be with us in person. He is taking the necessary precautions, but the quote from him that the noble Lord used shows the importance of establishing the Assembly and having it up and running. That would show the people of Northern Ireland, or their representatives, that the voice of Northern Ireland is properly heard wherever it needs to be.

I thank my noble friend Lady Ritchie for highlighting again the principles of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the subsequent agreements. Whenever particular issues arise in Northern Ireland, it is always something to read those documents and look at the brilliance of how they were negotiated. People overcame difficulties that nobody expected would be overcome.

I thank my noble friend Lord Hain for his contribution. He is right to point out the issue of legacy. I am sure that the Minister will say that it is not necessarily within the scope of this Bill and will have to be dealt with in other Bills, but it is an issue that must be dealt with.

These legacy issues impact on the context within which other legislation is discussed. If the Minister were able to say something about when we might expect some discussion of this and some legislation, people would find it reassuring, even if they disagreed with it, that the Government were coming forward with this. We would know where we were, and that would provide some context for all this.

This has been an important debate. There are issues around petitions of concern, what powers caretaker Ministers—however we want to describe them—will have, who will monitor them and who will hold them to account, what it means with respect to standards and so on. However, the Bill provides progress, but we need that progress to come quickly—and the commencement period is something the Minister will have to address. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in a Northern Ireland debate again, and I hope that the discussions we have had, and my contribution and that of my noble friend Lady Smith, help to inform the debate and that we get back to the place where we want to be: a functioning Northern Ireland Executive, with a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly, working with the UK Government to provide for the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Deputy Chairman of Committees, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 9:46 pm, 29th November 2021

My Lords, I am incredibly grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to such an excellent and well-informed debate this evening and, if I may say so, for giving a new Minister such a warm welcome—so much so that I was thinking of inviting the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, to do some of my PR in future. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for reminding me of some of my misspent years in the Red Lion public house during the 1990s. As part of my approach to this role, my door is always open to noble Lords on all sides of the House. Whatever concerns, issues or queries they have about Northern Ireland, however big, however small, they should always feel free to contact me and to come to see me and talk about matters.

The quality of the contributions this evening on all sides of the House is testimony to the expert knowledge and interest that so many Members of your Lordships’ House have in the affairs of Northern Ireland. I am, of course, very grateful for the general welcome of the Bill and its provisions. I welcome many of the comments made and look forward to discussing a number of them in greater detail and at greater length, no doubt, in Committee and during the passage of the Bill through the House.

As we heard, the Bill implements a number of the commitments set out in the New Decade, New Approach deal/agreement/document—however you want to describe it—made in January last year. It will improve the sustainability of the devolved institutions. It is not just on legislative commitments that the Government have been delivering through New Decade, New Approach. There are other areas outside the scope of the Bill, which include the appointment of a Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner for the first time, legislation to enshrine further the Armed Forces covenant in law, UK Government contributions to the creation of a new graduate-entry medical school in Londonderry/Derry and funding to promote Northern Ireland as a cybersecurity hub, which are all commitments in New Decade, New Approach.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, mentioned some of the economic issues in Northern Ireland. The Government are supporting the Northern Ireland economy through the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund, the community ownership fund and, of course, the spending review that delivered the largest funding settlement for Northern Ireland since the start of devolution in 1998-99. Taken alongside the more than 360,000 jobs protected as a result of government schemes during the pandemic, this underlines to many noble Lords the strength and security that Northern Ireland gains as part of the world’s fifth-largest economy.

Turning to the debate itself, most of the contributions fell into one of three categories: those relating directly to the narrow provisions of the Bill, those dealing with possible broader reforms of the devolved institutions—what might be deemed other strand 1 issues—and those more generally about the situation in Northern Ireland, notably, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, talked about, legacy, and of course contributions from across the House that dealt with the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol.

I shall try, in the time available, to respond to as many of these points as I can, beginning with a number of issues that were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. She, along with many other noble Lords, highlighted the importance of the institutions established under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. As I outlined in my opening speech, I remain very personally committed to those institutions. I have worked in the Northern Ireland Office during periods of direct rule, which I have to say were very unsatisfactory, as has the noble Baroness. Like her, I think that the institutions are far easier to collapse and dismantle than they are to bring back together. They were down between 2002 and 2007 for five long years, and we just experienced the lack of functioning institutions from 2017 to 2020, very much to the detriment of Northern Ireland.

I agreed with a number of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, about the beauty of the architecture of the agreement. For me, one key aspect of that is the way in which the agreement is able to accommodate difference, but in ways that allow us all to work together. I think that is terribly important.

A number of noble Lords referred to the commencement clauses in the Bill—I shall deal with those straightaway—and to the speed with which the Bill had been brought forward, or the lack thereof, in the view of the noble Baroness. The reality is that the provisions in the Bill were only ever intended to be made in relation to the next Assembly mandate—so never necessarily in the context of this Assembly—and the commencement date does follow the conventional “two months after Royal Assent”. However, if the political situation changes dramatically, that is something that the Government will be prepared to look at during the passage of the Bill through your Lordships’ House; noble Lords have my assurance on that.

A number of noble Lords raised what were described as unfulfilled commitments from New Decade, New Approach and from previous agreements. A Bill of rights is an issue that has obviously been around since the 1998 agreement. The agreement itself, as somebody pointed out, is actually quite ambiguous in its wording around a Bill of rights. The issue has always been around consensus, or lack thereof. New Decade, New Approach does contain provision for an ad hoc Assembly committee to look at this, and we look forward to seeing work on that.

On language, it is important to stress that what the Government are proposing to bring forward is not just around language, but a balanced package that covers identity culture and language, and we will do so as soon as parliamentary time allows.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, referred to caretaker Ministers and the powers they would have. We would expect, as New Decade, New Approach sets out, that Ministers who are still in office would have regard to the Administration’s previous programme for government. There would be constraints: cross-cutting issues would still have to go to an Executive for executive approval. If we were in a scenario where there was no First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the Executive could not meet, so those cross-cutting issues could not be agreed anyway.

There are clear limitations on which issues caretaker Ministers could take decisions on, but the principle that there is continuity of decision-making in Northern Ireland is very important. The alternative could well mean just going back to the situation that we endured between 2017 and 2020, which nobody found satisfactory and is one of the reasons for the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, talked about Clause 3 and sufficient representation in the Executive. New Decade, New Approach does not define what is meant by that, and the Bill essentially follows that document. As the noble Lord, with his long experience of Northern Ireland affairs, will know, there are some areas where it is sometimes advantageous to give the Secretary of State some leeway and discretion on these matters, which is why it is not defined more clearly in the legislation.

I am very pleased that my noble friend Lord Godson referred to Sir John Chilcot, who was my first Permanent Secretary when I walked through the door of the Northern Ireland Office 30 years ago next month and a very wise and good man. My noble friend made a number of important points about the lack of an Executive during the Brexit process and about the protocol. I commend the work of my noble friend and Policy Exchange, which has consistently taken an interest in this issue and put forward a number of suggestions on the protocol and so on. Those points were reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Bew.

I think back to the summer of 2016, shortly after the referendum, when Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, signed a joint letter setting out the priorities for the Northern Ireland Executive throughout the Brexit process. It is a great tragedy that, as a result of the collapse of the institutions in January 2017, the voice of the Northern Ireland Executive was simply not heard. That is something we should remember and not go back to. The Bill is designed to try to avoid that kind of collapse and political limbo.

The nobles Lord, Lord Hain and Lord Coaker, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie, all mentioned legacy. It was the main focus of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hain. Before I respond on legacy, I pay tribute to his work on victims’ payments over the past couple of years. They are now open for application, and I know that he stays in very close touch with groups such as the WAVE Trauma Centre and our mutual former colleague, Dennis Godfrey.

Legacy is an issue that has eluded successive Governments ever since 1998. It was not part of the 1998 agreement. The Labour Government made efforts to deal with it through the Eames-Bradley commission. This time seven years ago, I was permanently based in Stormont House during the discussions that led to the Stormont House agreement, but that was seven years ago. For better or worse and for whatever reasons, the bodies envisaged in Stormont House have never seen the light of day.

The Government are committed to bringing forward legislation to try to deal with this subject, and I hope very soon. It will focus on providing better outcomes for victims and survivors, principally through looking at information recovery but also, importantly, ending the endless cycle of reinvestigations and possible prosecutions of former members of the Armed Forces. I cannot give a precise date for when this will be introduced, but I hope it will be very soon.

A large number of noble Lords mentioned the Northern Ireland protocol. I am slightly limited as to what I can say on that issue, but, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, I assure him that I will discuss these matters with my noble friend Lord Frost and keep in very close contact with him on this crucial subject.

The reality is that the construction and implementation of the protocol has increased burdens on businesses, disadvantaged consumers, diverted trade and contributed to some of the political instability we have seen in Northern Ireland over recent months. An agreement or protocol deemed to be essential for upholding and supporting the Belfast agreement has now had the unintended effect of undermining confidence in and support for that agreement. Therefore, it is very important that the Government iron out the difficulties that are apparent.

Our clear preference, as my noble friend Lord Frost has said many times from this Dispatch Box, is to resolve these issues through agreement and negotiation with the EU. That is very much our preference, but we cannot rule out having to take measures should that agreement not be forthcoming. I remember years ago John Major wringing his hands at a press conference and saying, “Like me or loathe me, don’t bind my hands when it comes to negotiations with Europe.” I think that is very sensible. My noble friend is continuing those important discussions. I agree with the comments of noble Lords behind me from the unionist Benches and elsewhere across the House: it is vital that we resolve this, to ensure that Northern Ireland’s place within our United Kingdom and our internal market is absolutely secure.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, referred to the code of conduct, the Nolan principles and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It will not surprise him to hear that I am not completely across the detail of those decisions, but I undertake to go back to the department, look into that issue in some more detail and come back to him. On the code of conduct, I think the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked me a rather specific question about who polices the code. That would be the Commissioner for Standards in the Assembly, and the Assembly itself would look into breaches and bring forward whatever sanctions there are.

My noble friend Lord Dodds—he is my noble friend —referred to the petition of concern and where its original purpose is set out. My understanding is that that is contained in strand one, section 5, under the heading “Safeguards”, in the original Belfast agreement, but, not having a copy to hand, I will undertake to give him a fuller response in that respect.

I am conscious of time and the hour. I have endeavoured to deal with a number of the issues raised this evening. If I missed any glaringly obvious ones, I trust noble Lords will forgive me, on this my debut at the Dispatch Box, but I commit to follow up in writing any that I have missed. In the meantime, it just remains for me to thank noble Lords once again for their contributions. I look forward to working very closely with Peers from across the House during the remaining stages of the Bill. On that note, I comment the Bill to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.

House adjourned at 10.05 pm.