Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:18 pm on 5th December 2022.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure and an honour to make my maiden speech in this Chamber. It is a particular pleasure to follow my former lecturer, the noble Lord, Lord Bew: I will leave it to the discernment of the House at the end of my remarks to determine whether he was a good enough lecturer—or perhaps, more pertinently, whether I was a good enough student. Members will have to decide that for themselves.
I also place on record my thanks to the staff of this House for the great help they have been to me, both before and after my introduction to the House. I thank fellow Peers as well for the warm welcome I have received and for the kind remarks of those preceding me in this debate—although I say to the noble Lord, Lord Caine, that his allusion to my familiarity with the bars of Ballyholme might not have necessarily done me any favours with my party colleagues.
I hope I can bring a little bit of familiarity to the issues of the governance of Northern Ireland, to Executive functions and particularly to the Assembly. I believe that I am one of only five people to have contested all seven elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly since its inception in 1998. During that period, I have been able to both participate in and view the governance of Northern Ireland from a range of perspectives: through involvement in the Local Government Association and the Northern Ireland Policing Board; in my capacity as a Back-Bench Member of the Assembly serving on a number of committees; as a committee chair, holding government Ministers to account; as Chief Whip of the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly; and, finally, through serving two terms as Education Minister.
From that experience, I have drawn the conclusion that devolution is clearly the best vehicle for and the best method of governing Northern Ireland. However, to be successful, devolution requires both stability and, in particular, buy-in from across the community. It is a fragile flower that needs protecting.
I also have the great honour, as a native of the newly created city of Bangor, to be the second son of that great city to have served in this House in recent years. I have the honour of sharing that distinction with the late Lord Trimble. Although Lord Trimble was 24 years older than me and, occasionally, we did not always see eye to eye, we have a remarkably similar background. Lord Trimble was educated first at Ballyholme primary school, as was I; he went on to Bangor grammar school, as did I; he then studied law at Queen’s University, as did I; he was then called to the Bar of Northern Ireland, as was I; and he went on to become a distinguished academic lawyer—and that is perhaps where our paths diverged. While, for one term, I did teach constitutional and administrative law, it would be pretentious of me to lay claim to any of the abilities of Lord Trimble in that connection.
There is always a danger in attributing views to those who have predeceased us, but I think that I can say with a level of confidence that Lord Trimble would share with me a similar approach to the legislation that is before us—which is to see it as a somewhat reluctant necessity caused by the failure to deal with the problems created by the Northern Ireland protocol, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, indicated, has not only created the issues we see today around the internal governance of Northern Ireland but has had a profound effect on both strand 2 and strand 3 of the agreement. There will be further opportunities to delve into the detail of the Northern Ireland protocol, which I will not explore today, but we should be in no doubt that not only is the Northern Ireland protocol the root cause of this legislation, but—although it is not directly mentioned in the legislation—it remains the elephant in the room when we are discussing it.
I turn briefly to some of the detail contained within the Bill itself. As the noble Lord, Lord Caine, indicated, it has a number of component parts. First, it effectively legitimises the decision of the Government to postpone an imminent Assembly election. On balance, that is a sensible approach. It would be wrong if an election was postponed simply because someone did not like the potential outcome; that is not a legitimate reason. Nor indeed should an election be used as some sort of leverage or threat over any party or individual group. Experience in Northern Ireland shows that not only would that not produce the results that were intended but it would be counterproductive.
It is the case, however, that holding an election at the moment would, at best, act as both a delay to and a distraction from the action that is necessary to resolve the issues within Northern Ireland. It would also, I believe, not tell us anything different from what we already know. It is clear that nationalist parties and the Alliance Party are, broadly speaking, able to live with the Northern Ireland protocol, albeit that they are no longer insisting on its full implementation, while unionist elected representatives, of whatever shade of opinion and whatever party they belong to, are implacably opposed to the protocol. Any election would simply reinforce that and highlight it again from the electorate of Northern Ireland.
The second part, which to be fair, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, highlighted, is probably the most difficult, is the powers conferred on senior civil servants in Northern Ireland. They form a very august body of men and women—I know most of them personally—but there is no doubt that this places them in a very difficult position regarding decision-making. It can be only a temporary measure.
However, it is difficult, in the current circumstances, to find a better alternative to what is being proposed. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, referred to the Buick decision, which challenged decisions made by senior civil servants during the previous suspension of devolution. I look forward to the Minister’s response on this, but I believe and trust that the legislation has been framed in such a way to try to ensure that a Buick-type situation does not occur again.
The third element is the power, in limited circumstances, to make appointments. Again, that is necessary. I trust it will not be abused by the Government and that it will be used only where it is necessary.
The fourth issue, which has probably excited the greatest media interest, is MLA pay. When I served as an MLA for 24 years, I took it as a point of principle never to offer an opinion or try to lobby on what my level of pay should be. It is right that there is a reduction in pay where MLAs are not in a position to fulfil their full role. I do not think that anyone could disagree with that proposition. It is right that it is not extended to the salaries of those working for MLAs, who continue to do their day-to-day work in constituency offices. It would be wrong to punish them for the sins of the MLAs. I simply say, again echoing the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, that it would be a misconception to believe that any level of reduction in or promise of restoration of pay will have any great impact in changing the principled position that my party and others have on this issue.
Finally, there is a power in the legislation to set a regional rate. Allied to that are proposals that will be brought forward on the budget. Again, this seems sensible, notwithstanding that, whenever a budget is produced for next year, many of us might well have disagreements over its configuration.
We have reached this position because there have been missed opportunities with the Northern Ireland protocol. There has at times been inflexibility from the EU and promises have been unfulfilled. But I end in a spirit of hope and optimism. If this legislation can act as a device to put in place on a temporary basis governance arrangements that take these issues away, in the short term, from the political sphere, if it effectively clears away the rubble of problems of governance and allows a forensic and focused examination of the problems that face Northern Ireland through the Northern Ireland protocol, and if those opportunities are grasped to change and fix those problems, then this will be very worthy legislation. It is on the basis of the opportunity that needs to be taken that I stand to support this legislation. Thank you.