Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I too congratulate the Minister on his appointment to the Northern Ireland Office. He and I first met, I believe in the Red Lion on Whitehall, when I was a young researcher for the Liberal Democrats and he was working as a special adviser to the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew. Our paths then crossed again in 2010 when we were two of the more mature—indeed, probably the two oldest—spads in the coalition Government. I wish him well on his appointment at what I am certain will be both a challenging and hugely important time for politics in Northern Ireland. I hope that this will turn out to be a very positive chapter in the book which we all hope he is going to write.

Last night I was re-watching the documentary about the Blair-Brown years, and I was reminded that this delicate peace process in Northern Ireland requires leadership, bravery and commitment. It needs to be nurtured and based on trust and respect among the political players. This is something I believe the Minister truly understands, with his many years of experience. He will also understand that, right now, there are very real fears that in recent months the elasticity of trust in Northern Ireland has been stretched to its absolute limit.

From these Benches, we support the Bill but regret that it has taken so long to get to this point—a point made so powerfully by the noble Lords, Lord Godson and Lord Rogan, this evening. It is now nearly two years since New Decade, New Approach was agreed by the majority of but—as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, pointed out—not all of the parties in Northern Ireland. I accept that we have all faced unprecedented challenges with the global Covid pandemic but, none the less, those were two wasted years when so much could have been achieved to consolidate the peace process and move on from the past—two years when so much more could have been done to improve healthcare in Northern Ireland, strengthen the economy, move forwards on integrated education and begin to deal properly with the legacy of the past.

While the Bill is welcome in so far as it deals with the governance aspects of New Decade, New Approach, it does not yet cover legacy issues, as other noble Lords have said. It would be good to hear from the Minister in his concluding remarks when he expects the Government to publish their legislation on legacy. However, I should add, like the noble Lord, Lord Hain, that we on these Benches could not support the proposals as they currently stand.

In terms of the Bill before us this evening, I would like to concentrate my remaining short remarks on two aspects. The first relates to the commencement of the Bill, and here I agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Smith and Lady Ritchie. My Alliance Party colleague Stephen Farry MP tabled an amendment in the House of Commons which aimed to accelerate the enactment of the Bill. Given the current febrile political context, does the Minister agree that it would be desirable to have these new governance measures in place as soon as possible?

The second area is that of designations. It is now more than 20 years since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement was signed. Life has changed hugely since 1998. Back then, it was understandable that governance structures were based on having designations for nationalist and unionist camps. The group of people who considered themselves to be “others” or non-sectarian then was really very small. But despite the current political tensions there, a 20 year-old in Northern Ireland today will have a very different world-view from people of that age back in 1998.

If politics in Northern Ireland is to move on to the next stage of its development, it is not unreasonable to begin to ask questions about how and when progress can be made towards a normalisation of democratic politics there. This Government’s approach to Northern Ireland has all too frequently been characterised by carelessness, crises and reacting too late to events. I hope the Minister, with all his experience, will help to steer a more considered path, and I look forward to debating the Bill in more detail in the weeks to come.