Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 5th December 2022.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:43 pm, 5th December 2022

My Lords, it is great to have among us another unionist from Northern Ireland—a man who addressed us so well in his maiden speech and brings, as we have heard, a fine record of achievement from his work in the Assembly. Along with all other noble Lords this afternoon, I welcome him most warmly.

In reflecting over the last few days on the matters which are the subject of this debate, I kept coming back to one simple thought: the Government of the United Kingdom have an inalienable duty to provide as effectively as possible for the administration of public affairs in Northern Ireland, as our fellow country men and women there are entitled to expect. That duty must be discharged in all circumstances. Today, as we know all too well, the circumstances are extremely difficult, as they have been on other occasions in the recent past. Indeed, it is an illusion to suppose that difficulties are ever likely to be remote or easy to overcome in the immediate future. There are so many possible sources of strain and tension.

How can it be otherwise when politicians whose fundamental constitutional objectives are diametrically opposed—not just different but in total conflict—have to find ways of coming together to satisfy the terms on which devolved power can be exercised, and so provide the people of Northern Ireland with the kind of government over their local affairs that most of them so clearly want? Back in 1998, few imagined that Sinn Féin would become, and remain, the principal party with which unionist politicians would have to try and co-operate in order to make devolved government work. When I ask myself what I would do as a unionist in such circumstances, I do not find it easy to imagine myself supporting a regime that included Sinn Féin. I greatly esteem fellow unionists in Northern Ireland for their willingness to set aside severe differences in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.

Frankly, it is hard to feel confident that the current breakdown of devolution will be the last. That is why Great Britain’s union with Northern Ireland needs to be strong and effective, capable of taking the swift decisions that are always going to be required in response to severe difficulties when they arise. The decisions will often tend to cause irritation to one party, one community or another, underlining the need for a strong union that can cope robustly with criticism as it seeks to safeguard the interests of our fellow country men and women in Ulster within the constitutional framework that the majority of them support. That support needs to be enlarged. More young unionists are needed, and more of them from families that have traditionally seen a unionist vote as incompatible with their identity. A strong union that seeks to create a shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland will attract new support for the cause that it embodies.

This legislation, which is very much in the mould of earlier provisions brought forward to deal with previous difficulties, responds to the latest turn of events in Northern Ireland, which causes the greatest distress to all of us. My noble friend the Minister will, I am confident, want to ensure that the legislation is implemented as successfully as possible during the period that it remains in force. I doubt that anyone understands better than he does how a strong union should operate to the benefit of all parties and all communities in Northern Ireland, not just politically but socially and economically.

This legislation will provide a fresh opportunity for this Conservative Government to demonstrate that its party meant what it said in its 2019 manifesto: we stand

“for a proud, confident, inclusive and modern unionism that affords equal respect to all traditions and parts of the community.”

The Conservative and Unionist Party used to refer rather less respectfully to other traditions when it was created 110 years ago through the amalgamation of the Tories and the Liberal Unionists who had deserted Gladstone over his scheme for Irish home rule in 1886, which rode roughshod over the unionist community. Over the years, the party has adapted its position in response to changing circumstances, displaying a fundamental aspect of its character that has brought it much success generation by generation.

For my part, I have one chief regret about this Bill and other pieces of legislation that have been rendered necessary by breakdowns of devolution, which I have mentioned in this House before. They introduce no arrangements to preserve the democratic accountability of the great public services: education, health, housing and social services. All are damaged—in some cases severely, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie—when devolution falters.

Stormont is Northern Ireland’s upper tier of local government as well as its devolved legislature. In that, it is unique. Scotland and Wales have systems of local government as well as devolved legislatures. Why cannot arrangements be devised to enable Members of the Assembly to continue scrutinising public services and working together on behalf of the people they have been elected to serve when devolution is in abeyance? Why should local government functions be deprived of democratic oversight when the devolved powers cannot be exercised because the political parties are in disagreement on matters that are unrelated to local government?

Responsibility for the current impasse in Northern Ireland lies chiefly at the door of one person: Mr Boris Johnson. I criticised him when he was in power and continue to do so. He said there would not be a border down the Irish Sea, and then promptly created one. He presented himself as the person who would restore full sovereignty to the United Kingdom, and then left one integral part of it subject to laws made in the European Union. What kind of unionist is that? The current Government have no more important task than the resolution of the huge difficulty Mr Johnson left them. In the past, the intervention of Prime Ministers has been required to resolve acute difficulties: Lloyd George in 1921 and Tony Blair in 1998. The current Prime Minister should surely consider the case for following their example.

Exactly 100 years ago this month, the legislation granting self-government to 26 counties of Ireland completed its passage through this House. The legislation was introduced by a Liberal Prime Minister of a coalition Government, David Lloyd George. It reached the statute book under his successor, Andrew Bonar Law, a man of Ulster Scots background and the strongest unionist ever to be a Conservative Prime Minister. They could not have imagined the warmth that infuses Anglo-Irish relations today as two sovereign Governments work together as partners. Some say the Irish Government should exercise joint authority over Northern Ireland. It is hard to think of a policy more calculated to increase instability in that part of our country. Bonar Law stood for a strong union, binding Northern Ireland to the rest of our country. His political heirs today should do the same.