Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:51 pm on 5th December 2022.
My Lords, I start off by associating myself with the Minister’s remarks. It will be 40 years tomorrow since the awful Droppin Well bar tragedy that killed 17 people: six civilians and 11 soldiers. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families as they come up to the 40th anniversary of that awful tragedy.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Weir on his maiden speech. I have no doubt whatever that he will be a huge asset to this House, and I certainly welcome him to the House.
I take no pleasure in seeing this Bill in front of your Lordships’ House, but I recognise that the Secretary of State was mandated by legislation to bring forward such a Bill. We are all aware of why we are in this regrettable situation, without a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. When we had Assembly elections last May, we sought a mandate from the people of Northern Ireland on our opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol: we would not nominate Ministers to an Executive until real action was taken to address the real difficulties created by the protocol. There is no ambiguity around that statement. Why would we nominate Ministers to an Executive where a unionist Minister is required to implement a protocol that has no consent from within the unionist community?
Although limited in nature, the Bill allows the negotiations the space to find urgent solutions to the very real problem that exists as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol. The most disappointing fact of all is that there has been no fundamental progress on resolving the problems at the heart of the Northern Ireland protocol. I see no urgency from the European Union in addressing these issues. We do not know the strategy the Government are using for the talks with the European Union. My understanding is that none of the parties in Northern Ireland has been briefed about where those talks are at. The Northern Ireland parties have almost been pushed aside in these negotiations. That is the tragedy we find ourselves in today.
I have always believed that the decisions that impact on people’s lives in Northern Ireland should be made by accountable, local decision-makers. The European Union’s member states must be willing to be flexible when dealing with the very sensitive situation that we in Northern Ireland are in when it comes to the protocol. To date, there has been an unwillingness to be flexible. Equally, negotiations cannot continue forever. The people of Northern Ireland need to see results. For that reason, I welcome the publication of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. It should be implemented as soon as practically possible if there is continued inflexibility from the EU negotiators in dealing with these issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, mentioned briefly the most recent agreement on Northern Ireland—New Decade, New Approach—which was the basis on which devolution was restored. Commitments were made by all the parties in Northern Ireland. The one issue that has not been resolved since it was signed is the commitment by His Majesty’s Government to fully restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. This remains an outstanding commitment that has not been delivered—one that formed the basis on which my party signed up to the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
As I said earlier, I cannot say that I welcome the Bill to the House, but I recognise its necessity. We have been here before. It is true to say that, in some instances previously, decisions were being put on hold or simply not made. I commend the Government for being proactive in offering relevant assurances so that departments can do the necessary work. The Bill gives civil servants greater decision-making powers to allow public services to function. It also allows the Secretary of State to delay Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, with two deadlines:
I will touch briefly on MLAs’ pay. If anybody in this House believes that reducing MLAs’ pay will change their mindset and that of our party, and that we will be rushing to set up an Executive and Assembly—that will not happen. This is a principled stand. Whether it be money, a future Assembly election, or hearing “joint authority” from some quarters, this is an issue of sincere principle regarding where we stand on the protocol. It is nothing to do with money or a future Assembly election. We would welcome the latter: I believe our party would increase our mandate in Northern Ireland. I have absolutely no doubt about that.
I finish by saying that we are a devolutionist party. We want to see a functioning Executive dealing with the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland. It would be functioning, were it not for the Northern Ireland protocol. We want to try to find a resolution to this problem. We want the Executive up and running, working for all the people of Northern Ireland, not just ourselves. We have said that in this House on many occasions. The sooner the matters are resolved, the sooner we can get back to a future Assembly.
The EU needs to step up to the mark and resolve the problem. My fear in all this is that the European Union has the future of devolution in Northern Ireland in its hands. I believe that there is only one chance now for the European Union to get it right. Let me say that as a party we will not accept a sticking plaster over the problem any longer or trying to kick the can down the road. That will not work any longer. We want to see real change to the protocol so that in Northern Ireland we can all move on.