Examination of Witness

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:21 pm on 29th June 2021.

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Mark Durkan gave evidence.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 3:04 pm, 29th June 2021

Welcome, Mark. I think this is a conspiracy to do with the football because we seem to be getting through things very quickly. We have earmarked 45 minutes for your session. Would you explain to everyone who you are and what you do?

Mark Durkan:

I am Mark Durkan, and I suppose the reason I may be of interest to these inquiries is that I was one of the people who negotiated the Good Friday agreement. I also served in the institutions and the Executive, as the Finance Minister in the first Executive and then as Deputy First Minister elected by the Assembly in 2001. Then the Assembly was suspended in 2002. I also served from 2001 to 2010 as SDLP leader and as Member of Parliament for Foyle from 2005 to 2017. I was involved in various negotiations, including St Andrews, Leeds Castle, all the various Hillsborough talks and all of the other impasse negotiations that were around difficulties about interpretation and implementation of the Good Friday agreement and some of the subsequent agreements.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

You are most welcome, Mark, albeit virtually. Our first question today is from Alex Davies-Jones.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Q Thank you, Sir David, and thank you, Mark, for joining us this afternoon. As you mentioned, so much of the Good Friday agreement, which you helped to negotiate, is still not implemented. How important do you believe that this failure to implement key elements such as a Bill of Rights has been to damaging the sustainability of the peace process?

Mark Durkan:

I think it has damaged it hugely. For too long, Governments and others have tried to pretend it is as though the tyre is only flat at the bottom whenever we do not have the rights, provisions and promises of the Good Friday agreement upheld and implemented. It is not just that the Bill of Rights has not been implemented; we have seen regression in recent years because there were absolutely explicit commitments in the Good Friday agreement to the European convention on human rights, of it being accessible in the domestic courts in Northern Ireland and that it could be used specifically to allow the courts to strike down legislation in the Assembly.

Mo Mowlam worked very hard as Secretary of State and the areas of the agreement that she concentrated on most were the areas to do with rights, equal rights, equality and other safeguards. The fact is that she ensured that we had a strong Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and a strong Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which would be a way of giving voice and reality to those commitments on rights. The fact is that subsequent Governments adopted a position that said: “Well, we’re not really going to move on a Bill of Rights unless there is total agreement among the parties.”

The way the Good Friday agreement was written, it charged Westminster with the responsibility to legislate for a Bill of Rights, on top of its commitment to ensure that the European convention on human rights would apply to all public authorities and bodies. We did not get to follow through on that as far as the additional provisions of a Bill of Rights alongside the European convention is concerned, but in the post-Brexit legislation, we have seen holes being drilled into the commitments that are made there to the European convention on human rights.

Now, Ministers of the Crown have powers—it is almost like a form of direct overrule—to supersede decisions and choices at the devolved level in the name, for instance, of protecting the internal market of the UK. Those decisions can completely ignore any concerns around the European convention on human rights and a public body is actually forbidden to cite concerns about the European convention on human rights as to why it would not comply with what a Minister of the Crown has said. We have gone well off-road in what was envisaged in the Good Friday agreement in respect of rights.

One other thing I would say about rights, because this Bill touches on the whole question of petition of concern, is that it was the thinking at the time we negotiated the agreement that the petition of concern was not a petition of veto, it was not even a petition of objection, but that it would be used to trigger a special proofing procedure during which a special Assembly committee would hear specifically from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. So the petition of concern was very much rights and equality focused. It was to be there as a proofing procedure to ensure rights were upheld. It was never there to prevent rights being legislated for, which is how it has turned round to be abused.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Alex, if I could just interrupt you for a moment. Mark, we can all hear you very well indeed, but our technical team here is not hearing you very well and cannot do anything to turn up the volume. Of course, we are trying to record your evidence for Hansard purposes. If you can try and get as close to your microphone, wherever it is, that would be helpful for those trying to record things here.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Q The Good Friday agreement established a Civic Forum to give communities a voice and a proper consultative say in the democratic process. How important do you believe that was and has it set back progress on the Good Friday agreement that it is not currently in place?

Mark Durkan:

I think again that it is a key bit of the architecture that is missing. The Civic Forum was agreed by the parties in the strand 1 negotiations. We recognised that the Assembly was going to have many challenges and difficulties and agreed that it would be useful to supplement the elected representation in the Assembly with a strong Civic Forum. The thinking that some of us had was that maybe a Civic Forum involving a variety of stakeholders and public policy interests would be an outrider on some of the more difficult structural challenges that we would face in Northern Ireland in trying to rebalance our economy and make sure that a rebalanced economy also went along with a better balanced region, and also in tackling issues of a shared future and some of the big structural problems that we needed to change.

The idea was that work could proceed in the Civic Forum in ways that could frame issues for debate and choice that could then be taken up by the Assembly and Executive themselves. The fact is that the Civic Forum, when it was in operation, did start to do some of that work in forward strategic thinking, but unfortunately, while the Assembly was restored some years after it collapsed in 2002 after Stormont-gate, spy-gate—whatever people want to call it—the Civic Forum never was, and that is a loss.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Q Finally, what key measures do you believe need to be implemented that are currently absent from the Bill?

Mark Durkan:

I think we need progress in relation to the Bill of Rights. We need to try to clarify exactly what damage may have been done to the standing of the European convention on human rights and the reliance that citizens can place on it. A very direct promise was made to citizens in Northern Ireland about the European convention on human rights, but several of the Acts on the foot of Brexit have diluted that quite significantly, so I think that needs to be improved. While this Bill makes some improvements to the petition of concern—it weeds out some of the abuses in terms of how quickly or easily people table a petition of concern, so it is more qualified—it does not actually fix the problem with the petition of concern, which goes right back to the original 1998 legislation.

This is not a criticism of Mo Mowlam or of Paul Murphy, who brought that Bill through at the time, but that Bill translated the Good Friday agreement into statute in pretty short order, and the fact is that it did not properly translate what was intended in terms of the petition of concern. As I said earlier, the petition of concern was never to be a petition of veto, or even a petition of objection. It was to be there to trigger a special procedure, which the Assembly would then use and which would also call in the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission. It was to be joined-up scrutiny for rights and equality.

Of course, that has not happened and instead we have had the petition of concern being abused as essentially a dead-end veto, played almost as wild, as a joker at times, even against censure motions on Ministers. It was never intended to be so used. Some of the provisions in the Bill weed some of those bad habits out, but they do not correct the basic architectural mistake that the 1998 legislation never properly provided for paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of strand 1 of the Good Friday agreement to be put into statute.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Thanks for your evidence, Mark. You commented briefly on the original intent of the Good Friday agreement versus how it has latterly been used as a way to, I suppose, thwart minority rights rather than protect them. Could you give an assessment of what Daniel Holder this morning called the St Andrews veto, deployed at the Executive, and the extent to which it is being used as a pre-emptive veto that prevents proposals and legislation from even reaching the floor of the Assembly?Q

Mark Durkan:

Thank you for that question, Clare. First of all, there is a problem with what you describe as a pre-emptive veto—in the past, I have used the phrase “predictive veto”. That certainly stems from, first, the petition of concern itself, because once parties start to moot the possibility that a proposal or a part of a Bill might be the subject of a petition of concern, that very much helps to stop a lot of the preparation and a lot of the thinking.

Even at the prelegislative stage, issues end up staying inside Government Departments, or on the Executive table even, and not going to the Assembly because people sense that there will be a petition of concern, so we end up with a bit of a stand-off, or gridlock. Issues that should be the subject of clear, concrete proposals often find themselves remaining in hidden contemplation at Departments because people are afraid of triggering the petition of concern process. In that sense, it has ended up being like a predictive veto. The petition of concern was meant to be there so that issues could be properly considered and perused because of their equality and human rights implications. It was not there to stop proposals being tabled in the first place, but it has had that effect.

In terms of what Daniel seems to have said this morning about the St Andrews veto, that refers to the fact that, as part of the St Andrews agreement, an additional point of veto ended up being created explicitly at the Executive, whereby three Ministers could call in any measure—even one being dealt with by another Minister—to the Executive. They could also then subject that to a cross-community voting requirement at the Executive itself. Again, in this provision, there was no reference to equality, rights or any grounds on which such a veto or call-in power had to be selectively used. It was not there; it was just wide open and free range. At the time of the St Andrews negotiations, I referred to it as a “drive-by veto” that would be used on top of the difficulties that we already had with the petition of concern. Of course, again, this has meant that rather than giving due consideration to legitimate and much-needed proposals—often those that have been directed or requested by the courts—the Executive are not able to do that simply owing to this additional veto, which was created as part of the St Andrews negotiation.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

Q I want to pick up on another change to the Good Friday agreement at St Andrews that is also covered, in part, in the Bill, which is the change from jointly electing First Ministers to the arrangement that we currently have. What was the point in principle of that change? Do you think it has been a factor in the recurring instability that we have seen over the last number of mandates and years?

Mark Durkan:

I do not think there was a point in principle in that change as such. The reason why it was an imperative for the DUP to seek that change was because the DUP did not want to be in the voting lobby along with Sinn Féin to elect the First and Deputy First Ministers. The Good Friday agreement very deliberately provided for the joint election of the First and Deputy First Ministers by the Assembly on an open-nomination basis. Any two Members of the Assembly could have been proposed by any Member of the Assembly to be First Minister and Deputy First Minister, or, as we would have preferred to have the wording, joint First Ministers.

The DUP were afraid that if they were going to vote for Ian Paisley, they would have to vote for Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness together, and they would be in the yes Lobby in the Assembly, possibly on their own. The first move that the DUP and the two Governments made to try to resolve that momentary issue—it would have been the 10 or 15 minutes of a Division—was to say, “Well, we will force all the other parties into the Lobby with you.” From December 2004, the whole way up until St Andrews, it was the position of Sinn Féin, the DUP and the two Governments that the agreement was going to be changed so that no other party would get to be nominating Ministers under the d’Hondt rules if they had not also voted for the First and Deputy First Minister. This was an attempt to oblige the SDLP and the UUP to be in the lobbies with the DUP voting for Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, as the price of being included in ministerial office.

We as a party were very clear. We had negotiated elective inclusion into the Good Friday agreement. We had negotiated it there for everybody. Nobody had to even support the agreement to be eligible for elective inclusion; nobody had to vote for the First and Deputy First Ministers to be eligible for inclusion. When Seamus Mallon and David Trimble were elected, the DUP voted against and Sinn Féin abstained but they still got appointed Ministers. The plan was to change the rules to force the SDLP and the UUP to vote for them.

Whenever the DUP realised that neither the SDLP nor the UUP would comply with those terms, and therefore they were going to be in the Lobby on their own, they came up with this other device instead, that said, “Well, we will pre-assign, on an exclusive basis, the nomination of First Minister to the biggest party of the biggest designation. We will also privatise the nomination of the Deputy First Minister to the biggest party of the second biggest designation.” It was purely to remove that 15 minutes of discomfort for the DUP on one day.

What has happened since then has been that that change has meant that the Assembly elections have been tribalised even more deeply than they would have been, because they have been turned into a first-past-the-post race for First Minister, with the DUP saying, “You have to back us to make sure we are the biggest Unionist party and the biggest party, otherwise you could have a Sinn Féin First Minister.” Similarly, Sinn Féin are using it on the other side, saying, “Rub the DUP’s nose in it. We can take First Minister off them if everybody piles in behind us.” That is not what having proportional representation elections for the Assembly was designed to produce.

It has also meant that the office has had less of an air of jointery around it. Remember, they are nominated separately; they are not nominated or elected jointly. More fundamentally, there has been a weakening of the sense of accountability of the First and Deputy First Ministers. When the First and Deputy First Ministers are not appointed by the Assembly, they may feel less accountable to the Assembly. We have seen that with changes in previous years in relation to levels of Budget scrutiny. We also saw it at other times. For instance, there was a motion by the leader of the SDLP in the Assembly back at the end of 2016 around the renewable heat incentive. It was a motion calling Arlene Foster to account.

Arlene Foster’s attitude as First Minister was that she resented being called into the Assembly and she just parroted that she had a mandate from the people of Northern Ireland. She did not have a mandate from the Assembly. Her only mandate was to those who voted for the DUP. The DUP, in that previous Assembly election, got a smaller share of the vote than the Labour party, then in opposition in Great Britain, had done. The idea that this was a mandate from the people of Northern Ireland, not from the Assembly, created some of the tensions and some of what I would say—maybe unfairly—was evidence of arrogance on the part of the holders of that office. It all stemmed back to those St Andrews changes, which essentially privatised those two appointments simply to two parties and gave other parties no say in the appointment of Ministers.

I would contrast that with my own experience. To be elected as First Minister and joint First Minister, David Trimble and I had to have the support of not just members of our own parties but members of other parties. Indeed, some members of other parties had to even stretch to redesignate themselves to so elect us. You were always conscious that you owed your election and your level of accountability to all parties—not just to be obsessed with your own party’s mandate.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

Q I do not want to hog all the time, but I want to ask what your assessment is of the Government impact of the potential period of caretaker Ministers. The phrase that has been in my head all day is the former First Minister’s phrase “rogues and renegades”. I am thinking of the issues around powers and scrutiny. What is your assessment of that?

Mark Durkan:

As I understand it, the New Decade, New Approach negotiations involved a push by some parties to say that there was a need to lock in stability or sustainability, and that the way in which the Executive had fallen after the resignation of Martin McGuinness was something that needed to be corrected or avoided. I am not sure that the scheme provided for in this legislation really does lock in stability. In some cases, it may lock in what might be a pretty untenable situation of a caretaker set of Ministers limping on in office.

In fairness, we have to accept that every time we have tried to solve some of the conundrums that come up with the agreement, we find ourselves coming up against the same basic problem. It is a bit like, “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza”. Every time we try to solve one procedural or structural problem, we find ourselves coming up against another one, and in many cases we find ourselves coming up against the same basic question: is there really the will and commitment to truly honour and uphold disparate power sharing, both in the joint office of First Minister and in a power-sharing Executive? I am not sure that the proposals adequately answer that.

You can see, I think, that there is planning permission in the proposals for roll-over periods of every six weeks, potentially, where you have caretaker Ministers. No doubt kites will be flown that there are proposals to break through the impasse, and then we will find that that does not work, and there are more recriminations and still more roll-over of caretaker Ministers. How credible that will be, I am not sure. Whether the public will regard that as sustainability in the way that the parties that wanted the changes in NDNA talked about, I am not sure.

Then, of course, there is the issue about what is called representation—that the Secretary of State may step in, notwithstanding provisions elsewhere in the Bill, to call an election because he thinks that there is not sufficient representation among the Ministers who are in office to enjoy cross-community support in the Assembly. I think that was the phrase used in NDNA, but it is not used in this legislation. I assume that that is to address the possibility that one of the First Ministers could resign, other Ministers might resign, and in essence a shell of an Executive would continue, but it does not seem to me that the issue is properly dealt with. It seems to me that we are looking at planning permission for new brinks to be brought to teeter on, which is what happened even with some of the St Andrews changes, and some of the other procedural adjustments that have been made.

There is the question of what powers the Ministers will have. The suggestion is that their powers will be qualified and limited—NDNA said, of course, nothing significant or controversial. The question then arises of how many weeks you can really go on for on that basis, and who is to judge what is controversial. Do you have an Executive Committee that is able to operate? If we are talking about a period of either 24 weeks or even, as the Bill provides for, up to 48 weeks, where you have this kind of zombie Executive, what happens to the North South Ministerial Council? The Good Friday agreement provided very clearly that the Assembly and the North South Ministerial Council are so interdependent and so interlinked that one cannot function without the other. It seems to me that we have come up with a scenario of a period, possibly of up to a year, where you could have an Assembly functioning in some sort of quasi-status form and Ministers in a shell of an Executive, but without a basis for NSMC meetings to take place. That is not the institutional, interdependent, interlinked balance that the Good Friday agreement specified. The Good Friday agreement is explicit on the interdependence of the strand 1 and strand 2 institutions, but NDNA seems to have come up with a way of sustaining strand 1 in a way that could not actually sustain strand 2 at the same time.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

Mark, thank you for appearing before the Committee. Politicians generally agree that the Good Friday agreement was a good bit of work. It was successful, it has endured to the present day, and there is lots of confidence in it for the future as well. We know there are some relative threats to it at the moment, not least the Northern Ireland protocol and possibly the forthcoming statute of limitations on legacy—the list goes on. Can you assure the Committee that the Bill does not pose any threat to the Good Friday agreement? If there is a threat, can you explain what it is?Q

Mark Durkan:

In terms of the agreement, the Bill is meant to uphold and follow through on understandings that were reached by five parties and the two Governments in the NDNA, and that was the price of getting devolution restored. I look at the Bill not as something that is going to directly damage the Good Friday agreement. I would say it is something that does not go far enough to restore and repair the Good Friday agreement, to correct its standing. What is missing is the true correction correcting the original architectural flaw in the original 1998 legislation around the petition of concern. What is in the Bill about qualifying the use of the petition of concern is helpful and good, but it does not go far enough to correct the basic architectural flaw about the absence of the special procedure and the focus on equality and human rights, so that is something that could be improved.

Likewise, in terms of the appointment of First Ministers, I would prefer legislation that restored the factory setting of the Good Friday agreement and allowed for the joint election by the Assembly of joint First Ministers. That is going to be particularly important coming up to the next Assembly election when there will be all sorts of speculation about the possible permutations of numerical strengths of different parties. The terms that were fixed at St Andrews say that the biggest party in the biggest designation gets one nomination, and the next nomination goes to the biggest party in the next biggest designation, but they also provide for the fact that if the biggest party is not in the biggest designation, it will get to appoint the First Minister, and then the Deputy First Minister will go to the biggest party in the biggest designation. So, you can see areas where parties will speculate that they might score very highly in the election in terms of seats but end up, because of St Andrews, being disqualified from the exclusive nominating rights that are fixed. It would be much better if the whole Assembly, as elected at the next Assembly election, had the responsibility of jointly electing First and Deputy First Ministers, and if all parties had responsibilities for making the Government work, rather than being able to say, “It’s the problem of those two parties,” which are preassigned those two nominating positions by the random results of the election. Nobody else can be nominated to anything without the First and Deputy First Ministers being nominated.

The repair work that could be done and the prevention of some pretty serious anomalies or absurdities that could potentially arise after the next election have not been achieved by the Bill. I do not think that we should be precluded from thinking that through further, in order to avoid an impasse after the next election.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

Q Good afternoon, Mark. I do not agree with all of your evidence, but I certainly enjoy the fact that you have not lost your unique turn of phrase. I have been following very closely. On some of your comments concerning human rights and equality, you will remember the negotiations that led to the deal that was not a deal, which you and I were involved in around Stormont Castle. We had interesting discussions about the petition of concern and so on. Do you still accept that it is impossible for the Assembly to consider a Bill that has not been screened for equality and human rights impacts, and that the Assembly cannot progress or pass a Bill that is in conflict with human rights or equality legislation?

Mark Durkan:

I do not fully accept that. The whole point about the petition of concern at the time was to ensure that we had—I used this phrase earlier—joined-up scrutiny and that we would make sure that there could be a connection between the quality of Assembly consideration and the advice or evidence that might come from the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission or indeed others.

Remember that the whole promise of the Bill of Rights in the agreement was very much a promise to citizens. That is one of the reasons I lament the absence of a Bill of Rights. When we were negotiating the agreement, our thinking was that the reliance on things like the petition of concern would reduce in circumstances where you had a live Bill of Rights and the good custom and practice of people being able to exercise their own challenges. Parties would not then have to rely on some of these other designation-related devices. It was there for a reason. Yes, the agreement and the legislation are clear about the obligations around rights, including the European convention on human rights. But the logic and strength of that has been watered down by much of the legislation that has happened since Brexit, because the European convention on human rights does not have the same strength of standing in Northern Ireland after some of those bits of legislation as it did.

We are in a bizarre situation whereby a public authority can say to a Northern Ireland Minister, “You cannot ask us to breach the European convention on human rights,” and they are within their rights to do so and to challenge any request, demand or pressure by a Minister or Department to so do. But they will not be in a position to so challenge a demand or instruction from a Minister of the Crown under, for instance, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. Those instructions can apply directly to Departments in Northern Ireland or to other public bodies. What was envisaged in the Good Friday agreement, which Mo Mowlam in particular put so much work into the wording and strength of, is now diminished. I would like to see it restored.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

Q You know that the European convention on human rights is there in the Belfast agreement, and the Human Rights Act in the UK was passed some months after and came into operation in 2000. As part of that, for any challenge that is brought within Northern Ireland, our courts have to consider the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights in assessing the application of the Human Rights Act. Does that diminish your concerns in any way? Does that give you more reassurance? You mentioned earlier in your evidence that you could not go to court and rely on the convention, but you seemed to not ignore but maybe not reflect on the Human Rights Act and the part of it that specifically requires our courts in Northern Ireland to consider the jurisprudence and case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

Mark Durkan:

Yes, and the courts in Northern Ireland are given under the agreement the power to strike down legislation of the Northern Ireland Assembly on the grounds of incompatibility. They do not have the power to strike down legislation from Westminster, for instance. They do not have the power to strike down decisions that might be taken by a Minister of the Crown under something like the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. The decisions of a Minister of the Crown cannot be challenged in the courts. The UK Internal Market Act specifically provided for there being no challenge in the courts of Northern Ireland, or indeed in any other courts, on that basis.

That knocks a pretty big hole in the intended effect of the commitments on the European convention on human rights, which was provided for as part of the Human Rights Act. When negotiating the agreement, one of the reasons we were able to agree that the work on the Bill of Rights was something that would be for the future—for the next few years—was that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. The promise of the European convention being available and accessible in the domestic courts in Northern Ireland, on the basis of the Human Rights Act, meant there was a starting point—there was already a starter for 10—as far as rights protections, alongside the institutions, was concerned. But the intent and the expectation was that there would also be some additional rights that would go alongside the European convention and that, together, those rights and the European convention would constitute a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.

It would have been good to achieve that. I think it would also relieve the temptation that parties sometimes feel to use devices like the petition of concern and other structural blocks in the name of saying they are reserving or protecting rights, when they are actually preventing decisions. The more robust and articulate a Bill of Rights that can be taken to the courts, the better for the decision-making processes.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

Q This is perhaps slightly outside the scope of the Bill—Sir David, you can strike me down if you wish—but on the issue of a Bill of Rights, as you know, Mark, the agreement provided that the Human Rights Commission would bring forward proposals at the request of the Government, and it did and you reflected that there was not consensus at that time. What it was asked to bring forward was additional rights framed particularly because of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. It may fall outside the scope of your remit or interest, but what sort of issues do you think fall within that category of being unique issues to the circumstances of Northern Ireland now, in 2021, today’s era?

Mark Durkan:

The word in the agreement is not “unique” but “particular”. From my memory, that was because one negotiator in particular and one party would have voice-activated apoplexy any time anybody said Northern Ireland was a “unique situation” or “unique”. George Mitchell, Ministers of both Governments and all sorts of people found themselves seized with this fierce reaction to the suggestion that we were unique. “Particular” was, apparently, allowed, so that is what is there.

In the wording of the agreement, we did not specify—we did not give lists of examples of the particularities—and that was simply because we did not want to turn that section of the agreement into a sort of sin sheet, whereby we would each record or voice sensibilities about rights breaches or perceived rights breaches that had been endured, either through governmental or non-governmental and other actions.

Obviously, Northern Ireland does have very particular circumstances. At the time we were negotiating the agreement, there was a lot of talk around group rights. For instance, people were talking about that in relation to the parades issues, from two different sides and two different senses of rights. They were partly being talked about there, but we were not writing that specifically into the agreement.

Obviously, there is a statement in the agreement that makes a commitment—a kind of “from here on in”, future-looking commitment—around certain rights in Northern Ireland. Some of those touch on some of the issues that maybe are not dealt with in this Bill but are dealt with in other aspects of NDNA.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

Q Finally, Mark, you reflected on your disappointment with the Civic Forum. I think you know that we are probably in a different space from that, but as part of New Decade, New Approach there was an agreement, outside this Bill, to incorporate civic co-design in policy making and so on. Do you think that that was a useful step forward as part of the overall discussions in New Decade, New Approach, although I recognise that you still want to see the re-establishment of the forum itself?

Mark Durkan:

I think you can have both—it does not have to be an either/or. The forum having its own standing is good—it can take on work, particularly long-term work that may need careful framing of options and choices, and scoping out some of the issues and potential problems. We saw the forum as something that could do that, but we do not think it is the only form of civic engagement or input that there should be.

Let us not forget part of the success of a different aspect of the agreement in terms of policing—the Patten plan. We think the role of the independent members of the Policing Board was part of the strength of making that new beginning for policing happen and succeed during some very challenging times in the early days of the Policing Board and some challenging issues, in terms of the Omagh bombing report and the issues around, “I’m retiring; no, I’m not retiring”, by the then Chief Constable. The independents had a key role alongside the elected representatives. That is something that we can replicate in other ways. When it comes to prelegislative scrutiny in the Assembly, for instance, there is no reason why members of the public with particular policy insider expertise and credibility in given policy communities should not be there alongside MLAs.

There are different models and options, but there is certainly a big appetite among the public for it to be not just politicians alone who decide those things—or, more often than not, fail to decide them—and then recriminate those who are to blame.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

If there are no other questions from colleagues, I call the Minister.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Q Thank you, Sir David. It is a pleasure to see you again, Mark, as a much-valued former colleague in the Commons whom I enjoyed engaging with over many years. It is good to see you back.

You have talked about the importance of the Good Friday agreement institutions. I absolutely recognise that. Do you accept that, since the NDNA deal was reached, we have seen the restoration of devolution? We have seen meetings of the British Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. We have seen those institutions functioning. It required an agreement, as you say, with the input of both the British and the Irish Governments and all five parties to reach it.

I appreciate there are aspects of the Bill that you and your party might feel ought to be different, and aspects of the St Andrews agreement architecture that you may not like. Do you accept, however, that in order to get the devolved institutions restored and the institutions of the Good Friday agreement itself properly functioning, we needed to get the buy-in of all five parties and therefore reach a deal that was acceptable to all of them?

Mark Durkan:

Yes, I do. I said that I recognised that NDNA was an agreement by all the parties and it was the price that had to be paid for getting the institutions restored. I am glad that it is the case, too, as you say, Minister, that it is not just the Assembly and the Executive who have been operating; obviously, this week we had the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and other things, and I am very glad of that.

I am at a loss to understand why there was a decade when the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference did not meet. I think that the two Governments gave a very bad example as the supposed co-guarantors of the agreement. The one bit of the agreement that falls particularly to them was not being honoured. The Governments were not always in the strongest place by appearing to criticise either or both Sinn Féin and the DUP for the failure to restore the Assembly for three years, in circumstances where the two Governments had failed in their responsibilities.

Yes, I recognise the limitations in the NDNA. The problem is that some of those limitations are being translated into statute here. The promise is that this legislation is there to give stability and sustainability, but rather than blocking instability, there is a danger that it locks in a sort of zombie Executive and creates difficulties between parties, as well as creating difficulties in which the Secretary of State can be implicated. I think that the more we get into those sorts of difficulties, the harder things are.

This Bill does not rescue us from the sorts of absurdities that might emerge with possible election results at the next Assembly election. With a bit of speculation as to the different strengths of different parties, you could have very serious difficulties trying to appoint the First Minster and Deputy First Minister, as provided for in the St Andrews agreement, due to the random nature of the electoral results in terms of the number of Assembly seats. Those seats determine who has the prescribed right to nominate the First Minister and who has the prescribed right to nominate the Deputy First Minister. It becomes a real problem, and that will be a problem that discolours a lot of the election debate. It is going to bring people into all sorts of difficulties due to technical voting, tribalistic voting and all sorts of other things. We should be free of that. We should be trying to correct the St Andrews damage there, and I make no apology for that.

I think that proposed new paragraphs (e), (f) and (l), set out in clause 4(1), provide useful additions to the ministerial code in relation to good community relations and equality of opportunity, and also in relation to public appointments, civil service appointments and the code of conduct for special advisers. Those are useful additions, although I do not know whether there is a particular reason why some of the original terms of the code of conduct are now being omitted. For instance, one requires Ministers at all times to

“ensure all reasonable requests for information from the Assembly, users of services and individual citizens are complied with; and that Departments and their staff conduct their dealings with the public in an open and responsible way”.

That seems to have been omitted for the first time, and I do not know why.

Similarly, there are references elsewhere in the original version to users of services, but there is now no reference to users of services in the ministerial code of conduct. Even some of the opening language in the original version has been changed. It had required Ministers

“to observe the highest standards of propriety and regularity involving impartiality, integrity and objectivity in relationship to the stewardship of public funds”.

The opening language in the new version is arguably weaker. I am not aware of which parties either argued for or agreed that weakening of language.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Q I must say that most of the evidence we have heard to date—this is certainly true of the submissions I have received from the parties individually—sees this as a strengthening of the ministerial code. It is the case that some aspects of the Spad code and the ministerial code would sit with the Assembly to manage. What we are seeking to do here is correct those bits of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in relation to the ministerial code, in line with the agreement that was reached by the Executive and signed off by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister.

Overall, this should be a strengthening of the ministerial code, alongside some of the other mechanisms to enhance the stability of the Executive. This is about trying to support them. I would agree with your evidence and that of the former permanent secretary, but what we all want to see is good will from all parties to keep the Executive fully functioning and to avoid a situation in which these mechanisms are required. It is very important that we see that.

With regard to the possibility of what you called a zombie Executive—the Opposition talked about caretaker Ministers—do you accept, given the experience that we had during the long period of the absence of the Executive, with civil servants really being put in an impossible position, that it is useful during any potential period of interregnum to have a Minister in place who is able to take decisions within their departmental remit, to allow for some accountability within that, on the basis of the programme for government on which they were originally put in place? That would allow for continuity of departmental decisions and give some cover to their civil servants in a future period in which we might be without a First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Mark Durkan:

I take that point, Minister, but you said “some cover”. Given that the decisions are not meant to be on matters that are significant or controversial, some cover might be quite limited. Some of the difficulties and frustrations that the civil servants had in the previous period of abeyance could equally apply, but they would have Ministers who are not at full power or status and who may not have the benefit of actually operating inside an actual Executive, in those terms. It will be a pretty limp-along situation. It will be a sort of twilight zone, both politically and administratively.

I know you will say that, with the roll-over periods and things like that, there are options for the Assembly, and that if the position becomes completely unsustainable, in terms of cross-community support, there is the power for the Secretary of State to intervene to call an election. However, I think we need to recognise that we are providing for a series of episodic crises and anomalies that can happen under this legislation. In Northern Ireland, people have a habit of being able to conjure up all sorts of problems and interpretive misapplications of provisions to create particular problems. We have seen that previously in relation to provisions of the agreement or in subsequent legislation. As I say, I do not expect that there could ever be perfection in a Bill like this, because there is a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, and people keep coming up against some of the same problems, no matter how many patches or solutions we come up with.

However, I think we need to recognise that this imperfection means that it probably will not be very long after the next Assembly election until you will be looking at possibly more remedial legislation to deal with the probably untenable situation that might exist around the St Andrews provisions for the appointment of First Ministers. I think it would be better to correct that now. I think it is in all parties’ interests that that is corrected, in terms of equalising the title of the offices of First and Deputy First Ministers, and also restoring the joint election by the Assembly, and maybe relying not only on parallel consent but on other measures of cross-community support. I think that would safeguard the atmosphere around the election debate and would safeguard the choices of the public from being pulled into all sorts of tactical voting considerations owing to a pretty tribalistic agenda around the totemic significance, supposedly, of the title of First Minister, which should not be a singular title.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Mark, even though I dare say that the Minister wants to continue the questioning, we cannot; you have, in fact, used up the 15 minutes we gained, and we are due to finish hearing your evidence at 4 o’clock. We thank you very much indeed for the time you spent with us this afternoon. I know I speak for everyone when I say that I wish you well.

Mark Durkan:

Thank you, Sir David.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

We will have a two-minute pause.

The Committee deliberated in private.