Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:04 pm on 18 May 2023.

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Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 12:04, 18 May 2023

My Lords, I support the Bill, but I want briefly to echo the words of the Minister on Lord Brooke and the major contribution he made to the affairs of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

There is no alternative at this moment to the appearance of the Bill, which I think I can say safely that the whole House regrets. I welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee in the other place is taking a closer look at the general question of Northern Ireland funding and the longer-term problems of the financing of Northern Ireland. I note with great interest the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, that there may be lessons to learn from Wales: I think we should listen carefully to what he said on that.

As I said, there is no alternative at this moment, but of course there could be an alternative in quite quick order if the DUP were to take up its share of the co-premiership of Northern Ireland. Our briefing note from the Library is absolutely excellent—it is of very high quality—but it refers to the DUP taking up the deputy premiership as if it were, like the deputy premiership in the other place, a subordinate position, whereas of course Northern Ireland is a co-premiership and it is worth just making the point that the DUP would have half a share of the co-premiership were it to take up that position. Indeed, I remind the House that, on the basis of its previous work in this respect, it actually delivered 10 years of stability to Northern Ireland—something that is all too casually forgotten.

I conclude by briefly referring to the words of the Foreign Secretary at the Select Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on the working of the protocol. That committee, which has done important work, will soon, I hope, be the Select Committee on the Working of the Windsor Framework. The Foreign Secretary stressed the way in which, if the DUP returned to government, it would not lose agency, it would actually gain agency. At this point, it is a passive spectator with respect to realities which, however objectionable, are actually not going to change.

It is worth remembering that we are on a road and on a process. The Theresa May iteration of the withdrawal agreement that arrived in this House contained absolutely no reference to the existence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Johnson iteration changed that, and it has been changed much more again by the new Windsor Framework. It is perfectly clear that the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly going forward in handling the relationship of these tricky problems—and they are tricky problems, to which there is no perfect solution—is now considerably enhanced. Parliament as a whole has moved very substantially on what is called the democratic deficit: indeed, the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, has laid a lot of emphasis on that.

I remind the House that the brake which has been introduced in the new arrangement is a new development. It is increasingly clear, from listening carefully to the debates, that it is not disputed on any side that it is of significance. There is an argument, given the totality of developments, about how important it is, but there is no argument any more about its specific effectiveness, on either side. That is one of the few points of clarity in what I think has been a very confused debate in Northern Ireland which has not focused enough on the exact details of what has been before the people of Northern Ireland over the last few weeks; it has become increasingly clear.

I draw brief attention to the unilateral declaration by the UK Government on the democratic consent mechanism in Article 18, posted on 24 March of this year on the EU website and noted by the EU. This again raises a whole space for political play in dealing with the possible difficulties that might well arise. Of course, ultimately there is a simple reality. As Lord Trimble did twice, with my total support, if it turns out that undertakings have been given—for example, the apparent undertakings in the very important White Paper the Government have laid out—and if the DUP enters the Executive and it turns out that the undertakings, or the apparent basis on which the DUP is entering, are not correct, there is the option of actually withdrawing again. Nobody can dispute this. Lord Trimble effectively did it twice. It is not very nice and I would deeply regret seeing it happen. I deeply regretted it being done twice in a different era, but it was actually the right thing to do and it sustained the process in the end. But it is indisputably an option.

So the alternatives are either to be a passive recipient of things that cannot be changed or to engage in genuine political debate about the future.