Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:37 pm on 18 May 2023.

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Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 12:37, 18 May 2023

My Lords, obviously, I join the Minister and other Members of your Lordships’ House in referring to the work of Lord Brooke. Peter Brooke was a man of huge decency and integrity. He was a colleague of mine in the House of Commons, and obviously a very effective Secretary of State in the sense that he actually progressed the peace process. Also, and sometimes forgotten, he was a very effective chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee. He will be missed. He played his part in Northern Ireland history; there is no question about that.

We of course agree with the necessity of the Bill. It has a very innocuous name, the Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill. What it actually means is that we are going to carry on with a sort of direct rule until we can resolve the problems with regard to the restoration of the institutions. That is not good, of course—we deeply regret it and I will come to that in a second—but with regard to the Bill, particularly on the issue of finance, there are important questions that the Government have to address. They have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and others. There is a case—I speak as a former Finance Minister for Northern Ireland—for a re-look at, reform of and rethink of how the Barnett formula applies to Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, quite rightly referred to Northern Ireland, in the formula sense, being underfunded. He referred to the position of Wales, which I know a little about. It is quite interesting to reflect that the settlement changed for Wales because of the work that was done and the pressure that was put on the Government by the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government. Would that have happened without devolution? It might have done, but I doubt it. A sitting Government in Cardiff and a sitting Parliament could address these issues in detail and then negotiate with the United Kingdom Government. Therefore, the issue which the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to is best addressed in the context of a restored Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland.

I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, that we could exist without an Executive and an Assembly in Northern Ireland. If we completely forget about the Good Friday agreement and the peace process, with a Parliament in Edinburgh and a Senedd in Cardiff, it would be impossible not to have a devolved Parliament in Northern Ireland, irrespective of the peace process. We must live with that, and we should, because it is the only answer to the problems of Northern Ireland. Every time a Member from Northern Ireland gets on their feet in the Commons or in this House, ultimately it is not good enough. Those people in the Assembly in Belfast are elected directly by the people of Northern Ireland to address the specific issues which are devolved to Belfast. The Minister knows that there are dozens and dozens of huge decisions which cannot be taken by civil servants. It is totally unfair, in a modern democracy, to put on the backs of people who are unelected the burden of having to make huge decisions which only politicians can decide, particularly regarding finance.

Obviously, we still understand the problems that the Democratic Unionist Party has with the settlement in Northern Ireland regarding the European Union. However, the Windsor Framework is a real step forward and should be the basis of proper negotiation to arrange a settlement. This morning I was looking, yet again, at Section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act1998, which I had the privilege of steering through the House of Commons a quarter of a century ago. It says specifically that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and will only cease to be so if the people of Northern Ireland so decide by a majority. I cannot see that happening for some time to come—who knows?—but that is what it says. The principle of consent—