Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:10 pm on 18 May 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Hoey Baroness Hoey Non-affiliated 12:10, 18 May 2023

My Lords, the Minister said it was with profound regret that he was bringing forward this Bill; I think we all share that sentiment. I do not want to repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said, but it is important that we remind ourselves why we are here: we are here because the United Kingdom Government decided that Northern Ireland could be treated differently, and our citizenship is being eroded in many ways. The internal market has gone and all the hype about the Windsor protocol, as I would call it, is being exposed more and more. Therefore, we are here through the Government’s own making, and because they are not committing to the whole of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union—which was what was on our ballot paper in Northern Ireland as well.

Of course, we have to go ahead with this Bill; it is important. However, I think we should also remind ourselves that the 1998 devolution process, which we have been commemorating recently, is inherently unstable. It may have enhanced peace, yet there have been over 150 terrorist murders in that period, mostly killings between terrorist groups and each other. None were caused by the state, although around five involved the deaths of security force and prison staff. You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the ceaseless list of 1970s legacy cases going through the courts in Belfast—every week there is another one—all of which are trying to rewrite history by reallocating blame for killings from the IRA to some element of state forces. It is really important that your Lordships realise and remember that.

A working Executive could do various things. They could agree on dividing up the money from the block grant. However, as we know in this House, any issues which require the two communities to yield on their particular hard and fast views mean we in Parliament end up legislating time after time: on legacy, abortion, gay rights or welfare reform—anything that is really controversial ends up here. We need to remember that as well.

The 1998 consociational structure means that Stormont operates on two tracks that do not meet. Local government works because it operates more on a committee system that cannot be boycotted easily. We see, and it is quite sad, that the Government, having changed the date of the local council elections to today, then put Northern Ireland legislation on the agenda for today. My personal view is that we should be strengthening local government in Northern Ireland, increasing the numbers of Members of Parliament, and doing away with and abolishing the whole Stormont set-up.

The current Secretary of State will not remember it, unlike the Minister, but when David Trimble twice pulled down the Executive over decommissioning, or the lack of it, he experienced the same wave of outrage that we hear in the media in Northern Ireland about what is not happening and Stormont not sitting. Today that rage is compounded by the strategic budget cuts. I believe that Northern Ireland needs the same focus on the Barnett formula, and how it works, that Wales got—it really is time for that. People in Northern Ireland are not stupid. They know that some 98% of government spending in Northern Ireland will proceed, regardless of whether Stormont is sitting or not. The financial situation is dire, and of course some of that happened under Stormont. The Sinn Féin Finance Minister could not get his budget through Stormont, so the idea that if we all get back to Stormont tomorrow the finances would be sorted is rather silly.

We have a legislative lockdown, but with only the minimum of law changes needed to keep the show on the road and to stop the lack of money supply actually wrecking sections of the economy. However, I feel the Secretary of State has perhaps decided that punishing the Northern Ireland people is the way to get devolved government back. We have seen senior civil servants—who I am sure are taking soundings from government Ministers—choose the most conspicuous cuts, such as this week’s cut to nurse-training funding, to frighten the public. I am sure this is being given the green light by certain people in certain positions. That health cut is going to inflict a major workforce shortfall in three years’ time, when those nurses who should have been graduating and entering the local profession will not do so—and of course there is a huge shortage of trained nurses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

There is some common sense in the Bill. Clause 2 gives powers for the Secretary of State to direct departments to provide advice or information, and even to oblige them to carry out a consultation. There might be a seed of a possible return to what I think would be a more sensible solution, and that would be a form of direct rule.

I know the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, on the Front Bench, will probably have a different view, but I think the Orders in Council system could have been a better way. We are going to find it extremely difficult to get Stormont set up and working well. It is time we started to think about that and to realise that Northern Ireland does need the direct attention of this place, and not treat devolution as some way of getting rid of it. We need to remember that while we have the Windsor protocol we will not have devolution.