Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:53 pm on 5th December 2022.

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Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 5:53 pm, 5th December 2022

My Lords, I thank the House for the quality and spirit of the debate that has taken place over the last few hours. To some of us in your Lordships’ House, it emphasises and underlines the important role that this House retains in our constitutional arrangements. The contributions this afternoon have shown a great degree of interest in and constructive consideration of the contents of the Bill, and indeed a real passion to move Northern Ireland forward. In that spirit, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, as always, for his very sensible, wise and constructive comments; I also thank the Liberal Democrats and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, in the same spirit.

I add to those who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Weir of Ballyholme, on his outstanding maiden speech. I thank him in particular for his kind words, along with those from the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, about our late noble friend Lord Trimble, who was rightly described by the noble Lord as a giant of Northern Ireland politics. I think that I have in the past described him as probably being up there in the unionist pantheon with Carson and Craig as one of the great leaders of unionism in Northern Ireland. I thank both noble Lords for their comments. I apologise for highlighting that I might have a better knowledge of some of the public houses of Ballyholme than the noble Lord who is from there, but I assure him that I will keep supporting the local economy with friends in that respect.

I repeat what I said at the outset, and what many noble Lords have said in the course of the debate: no Government would want to be in the position in which we find ourselves today. It is highly unsatisfactory that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are not functioning properly and doing the job that we would all expect them to do. For the avoidance of doubt, and as somebody who worked for previous Secretaries of State, I can tell noble Lords that we made exactly the same criticisms in the period between 2017 and 2020, when it was Sinn Féin holding up the Executive; there is no inconsistency in our approach to those matters. Like noble Lords across the House, we want to see the institutions restored at the very earliest opportunity and we are working diligently to try to ensure that this happens. As I say, it is clear from noble Lords’ contributions that they share that desire.

I will address one point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, in response to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, around reforming the institutions. I have been involved in this for quite a long time now, and I stand by the ground rules for political talks that were established back in 1996. They make it clear that changes to the governance arrangements and institutions in Northern Ireland do indeed have to proceed on the basis of sufficient consensus; that requires the support of parties representing the majority of unionists and the majority of nationalists. Any future recommendations for changes, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, put forward about joint First Ministers, would always have to be judged in that context and against that background.

I am pleased that the House recognises largely that the Bill is a necessary if regrettable step—as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, described it—that we need to take so that the UK Government can ensure the continuance of governance arrangements in Northern Ireland. A number of noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, referred to the necessity of all-party talks at the current time. Like the noble Lord and noble Baroness, I have been through many talks processes in Northern Ireland over the years—some successful and others, regrettably, less so. The Government are committed to continuing very close dialogue with each of the parties. We will judge, when the time is right, whether that needs to move forward on the basis of bilateral discussions or whether it needs to be in a multilateral format; we will judge what is the right format at the appropriate time. But I take on board what the noble Lord said about the need for a plan in this respect.

I will respond to some of the other points raised during the debate. Unsurprisingly, in a debate about the Executive formation Bill, the Northern Ireland protocol loomed large because, as many noble Lords, particularly those on the DUP Benches, made abundantly clear, the principal reason why no Executive is up and running is the Northern Ireland protocol. I was very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bew—I should call him my noble friend—for a number of the suggestions he put forward as to how things could move forward. I want to take away his suggestions and discuss them with colleagues back in the department.

The noble Lord referred to the importance of strands 3 and 2 of the agreement. That is extremely important. It is common for people to look at the Belfast agreement through the strand they prefer or to which they are most attached. That has been characteristic of some in the European Commission in the past, regrettably. It is clear that the Belfast agreement is a three-stranded agreement in which all the strands are interlocking, and all need to function alongside each other properly. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for making that point clear.

The noble Lord also talked about what he described as “skulduggery” across the border, which has always been with us. He made some suggestions in that respect. I remind him that the 2015 fresh start agreement, in which I was involved, did indeed establish a cross-border joint agency task force to deal with some of the issues to which he referred. I believe that is functioning quite satisfactorily at the moment.

Unfortunately, I will have to disappoint a number of noble Lords when it comes to the protocol. We have debated the protocol Bill extensively in your Lordships’ House in recent weeks. As a member of the Bill team, I sat through all four days in Committee. Where I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, as I have said in the past, is in his very valid point that we suffered from the lack of a Northern Ireland Executive in the period after 2016. I well remember the joint letter in the summer of 2016 that Martin McGuinness, as Deputy First Minister, and Arlene Foster—the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, as she now is—as First Minister signed, setting out an agreed Executive position. Northern Ireland suffered quite considerably from the lack of an Executive in the period between 2017 and 2020.

Sadly, I will disappoint a number of noble Lords by not being able to go into a great deal more detail at the Dispatch Box as to the status of the negotiations and discussions that are taking place, other than to reiterate that, as noble Lords know and as was set out extensively in Committee on the protocol Bill, it has always been our preference to resolve the issues, which we accept do need resolving—there is no question about that—through talks with the European Union. The Foreign Secretary and Vice-President Šefčovič are speaking regularly and UK government officials continue to have talks with their counterparts in the EU.

When I talk about solutions to the protocol, I reassure noble Lords who raised the commitments in New Decade, New Approach that one of the objectives of the UK Government is, of course, to ensure that Northern Ireland’s position within the UK internal market is fully respected and upheld. There should be no doubt about that. No doubt we will return to these matters in much greater detail at a date to be determined at some point after Christmas.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, referred to the court case in the Supreme Court that she has been sitting through. We await its judgment in the new year with some interest.

My noble friend Lord Lexden referred to the need for a stronger union, in a speech that I think was in the best traditions not only of him but of somebody he and I would describe as a mentor on Northern Ireland matters, the late TE Utley, the great and wise Tory seer. If I can give my noble friend one piece of reassurance, he kindly referred to the Conservative manifesto from 2019, which I confess to have playing a small part in. The first sentence of the Northern Ireland section states that, as Conservatives and Unionists, the preservation of a secure and prosperous United Kingdom is our overriding goal.

My noble friend raised possible joint authority between London and Dublin, which has been raised by some in recent weeks. Again, to reassure him, our position is very clear: the Belfast agreement allows for two constitutional options for Northern Ireland. One is as part of the United Kingdom, the other is as part of a united Ireland on the basis of consent. It does not provide for a third way or in any way create a hybrid state in Northern Ireland; it is either wholly in the UK or wholly in a united Ireland. Therefore, joint authority would be totally incompatible with the provisions of the Belfast agreement. This Government will not countenance any constitutional provisions that are incompatible with the agreement, such as joint authority. That should be an end to the matter.

A number of noble Lords referred to the timetable set out in the Bill. I appreciate their concerns around that. Clearly, we hope that the time period afforded by the legislation will create the space required for talks on the protocol to make some progress but, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, and my noble friend Lord Godson, it is not and never has been our intention to create an indefinite or undefined extension to the Executive formation period. Obviously, I cannot predict what might happen over the next few weeks or months, but it would not be appropriate to have an open-ended delay to that deadline in the legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, referred to a number of issues. In particular, I will mention energy support. I think he said that the Government were preventing support. That is very much not the case. There are differences between the energy markets in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. There are also differences in the capacity of supply companies that operate in Northern Ireland compared with some of those operating in Great Britain. We are absolutely determined to get that money and support to people in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity. I think my honourable friend the Minister for BEIS said in the other place last week that he was very hopeful that we could get this money to people by January, but there is absolutely no intention on our part to delay, or anything of that nature. We are absolutely committed to helping people in Northern Ireland and ensuring that they are not disadvantaged vis-à-vis the rest of the United Kingdom. I hope that goes some way to reassuring the noble Lord on that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, talked about the dates of the local elections. She will be aware that, under Section 84 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Secretary of State has the power to change the date of the elections. We will consider the timing of local elections in Northern Ireland in respect of the date of the Coronation in due course. We have a short period in which we can come to a decision on that—but I do understand her points.

If I have missed anything of major significance, as always, I will commit to writing to noble Lords, but in conclusion, I have said many times that none of us wishes to be in this position. We all wish to see the institutions established by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement; that has the support of the overwhelming majority of Members of this House and, I believe, the other place. We want to see all those institutions up and running and functioning, and Northern Ireland largely governing its local affairs in a local Assembly through its local, democratically elected politicians. In our view, that is the surest way for a strong, stable, prosperous and increasingly shared Northern Ireland within, I hope, the United Kingdom. That is our objective. In the meantime, the Bill is a regrettable necessity.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.