Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:10 pm on 5th December 2022.

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Photo of Lord Godson Lord Godson Conservative 5:10 pm, 5th December 2022

My Lords, I share the pleasure of the House in the maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Weir of Ballyholme. I should add that I have known him for over a quarter of a century since I was working for the Telegraph and I started sniffing around his then discreetly-emerging dissidence from the policy of my late friend Lord Trimble. He was always supremely well-informed even then, if a little too discreet for my taste as a working journalist at that point.

I express appreciation to him for the tribute to my late friend Lord Trimble. It was gracious of the noble Lord to speak in those terms, and of course Lord Trimble himself had to deal with just the kind of temporary extensions and suspensions of the institution during the years 2000 to 2002. Those were sometimes difficult and vexatious debates in this Parliament and in the Assembly at Stormont, so perhaps by the standards of that period there is more consensus here today than there was back then, which is welcome.

I support the Bill but with a significant reservation. The legislation before us authorises the Minister to put off the calling of an election—an election that, as we have heard, has little to no support in Northern Ireland—by just six weeks. On Thursday this week the Minister will extend by six weeks the deadline for an election to be called. He and the Government hope that by 19 January next year there will have been a negotiated solution. Of course we are all hoping for that, but to what degree is it actually likely? Few believe that it is. There have been a mere 45 working days since the talks restarted last October. Ministers have given little information so far about how those talks have progressed but, for all the improved mood music, there is as yet little sign of an agreement around a solution for the protocol and the current crisis in Northern Ireland.

The six-week extension to 30 working days includes Christmas and the new year. For exactly half of that time, this House will be in Recess. There may well be some progress over these weeks, and let us hope that is the case. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, has drawn attention to some of the positive signs emanating from Dublin, no doubt because of his peerless contacts there with many of his former pupils, who are on the southern side of the border as well as on the northern side of the border, presently here in this House.

However, that all still seems a bit unlikely. It cannot be banked on or taken for granted. We do not even have an outline of what a solution might look like, at least before 19 January of next year. This legislation is legally required. It is entirely correct that the legal basis for that election having been called on 28 October 2022 is addressed, but the most likely outcome is that on 19 January 2023 the Secretary of State will be in the same position as he was just over five weeks ago on 28 October.

Not only must the deal be agreed now between the various Northern Ireland parties, even if they are not involved in all aspects of the deal itself, but we and they will still need to digest whatever is agreed and sound out the grass roots in all communities. It is widely understood that the real date we are working to is, as has been alluded to, the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement on 10 April 2023, but even that may come and go without a complete resolution. There are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, pointed out, council elections in Northern Ireland in May of next year. I would think that the election must be held before, or on the same date as, those elections at the very latest.

As many Members of this House have said, this Bill is most necessary. The limitation on the Secretary of State’s ability to postpone an election is well intended and right. What we are debating is whether the timing which it sets for a new election is at all realistic. Is it now in step with the timeframe of the talks being held with the EU? Are the Government boxing themselves in unnecessarily, and can my noble friend the Minister reassure this House whether our concerns about this timetable are in any way realistic?