Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:33 pm on 5th December 2022.

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Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 5:33 pm, 5th December 2022

Frankly, Ministers have to do that all the time; we see them having to explain themselves in the House. The point that the noble Baroness is making is perfectly valid in the sense that Governments have to implement the laws under which they operate. However, the challenge I put back to her is that the people of Northern Ireland need to have their day-to-day problems addressed, and that is not happening. The question is: how legitimate is it to put those everyday issues which matter to the people of Northern Ireland above or below the needs of the protocol? I am not arguing that the protocol is not an issue; I am suggesting that it is not a justification for being where we are.

The Minister, in his introduction, explained that this is not a situation he relishes or wished to be in. We all understand that, but I am slightly concerned about the deadlines. The first deadline is this Thursday, and the second is 19 January. It has been said by numerous speakers in this debate that there is very little evidence of an active negotiation to try to get some kind of resolution. So my concern is that, by the time we get to 19 January, the Minister will come back and say that he will have to introduce another Bill to extend it even further. We need to know where the active process of trying to address these issues is. There does not seem to be enough urgency or engagement to try to secure an outcome.

In that context, I say in passing that the talk about penalties and salaries, again, does not change anything; it has been done before. It has been argued, of course, that the overwhelming majority of Members of the Assembly wish to be there, yet they are going to have their salaries cut, in spite of the fact that they are not the cause of the Assembly not meeting. The Government say that any kind of discrimination would be legally very difficult.

Before continuing, I make it clear—I have it on record; I just checked it myself—that I have consistently criticised Sinn Féin for their refusal to deliver the Assembly. So I certainly do not take sides on this: no party should stop democracy functioning, as I said at the time.

We have a situation where there are a growing number of people in Northern Ireland who regard some of these debates, important as they are, as much less important than the cost of living crisis, the energy crisis and the fundamentals of day-to-day life which are not being adequately addressed by their representatives. The fact that the cash to help for fuel bills is being delayed has already been mentioned. I do not know whether it is because of intransigence, but I believe that had we had an Assembly, this probably would have been addressed on the same terms and timescale as everywhere else in the UK. This is really fundamental: of the people who are desperately worried about whether they can afford to heat their house—coming from Scotland, I know how cold it can be in the north—and are worried about their energy bills and the cost of living, I wonder how many of them say, “Please resolve this political issue”, rather than, “Please sort out my energy bill and help me with the cost of living; why aren’t our local politicians doing that?”

We have debated the outcome of the protocol in the protocol Bill; therefore, I do not wish to take more than a minute on this subject. The DUP keeps talking about the conditions that have to be met, but, as far as I can see, they are asking for irreconcilable conditions—that there should be no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and no border on the island. We had that when we were in the EU, but now that we are out of the EU, I do not see how it is possible to have no border, given where we are at. I accept that Boris Johnson signed this in a hurry for political reasons in an election, called it “getting Brexit done” and an “oven-ready” deal—it was none of those things—and knew perfectly well that it did not do what he claimed it did. He has absolutely dumped us in this; he has left us with this mess. Nevertheless, resolving it will require some degree of checks of balances. The questions are: how limited can they be, how acceptable can they be, and can they be done in a way that makes life practically constructive for the Northern Ireland economy and the people of Northern Ireland?

There is a more fundamental difficulty: Northern Ireland, being in the single market, is inevitably subject to EU rules which, because we are not a member of the EU, we no longer have a part in shaping. I am not sure how we can resolve that, because that is the deal that we have signed. If we simply suspended the protocol, which is what the legislation wants to give the Government the power to do, we would not just be suspending the protocol; we would be tearing up our treaty on exit from the EU. The whole of the UK economy would then be in a very parlous state, being not only outside the EU but in economic conflict with it.

What concerns me is the way people can say, “We have to have this, this and this”, without recognising the inherent contradictions in those supposed conditions. For example, when the DUP says that it had a mandate at the last election and will have a mandate if there is another election, it is not a mandate that is within the DUP’s power to deliver. That is really the point that it needs to address.

We now have legislation—clearly, we cannot carry on past the deadlines without legislation—but this cannot go on indefinitely. People are suffering, which is why the extra powers in the Bill are necessary to ensure that the basic day-to-day decisions that are urgently needed will happen, but not in circumstances that are democratically accountable or even properly transparent.

If power-sharing means anything, it absolutely requires a degree of consent, but it also requires co-operation and compromise. If that is not forthcoming, it does not function and it is not democratic. If the DUP is absolutely uncompromising in its unconditional refusal to accept some degree of compromise—I agree that it is entitled to ask about the negotiations so it can see what is going on—and is not prepared to accept that, what would it accept? If it is nothing that can be delivered by the UK Government or the EU, it will have to recognise that reforms that are compatible with the way Northern Ireland is governed and with the Good Friday agreement would become irresistible. That is something it needs to consider.