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

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord Bew Portrait Lord Bew (CB)
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My Lords, I rise to support the Bill and to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Caine, to his position. It is wonderful to have in this House somebody with so much expertise on this subject and so much genuine, heartfelt concern for the people of Northern Ireland and their future prosperous development. I am also glad to see here tonight the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, who was such a distinguished representative for his party as shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland in the other place.

First, I support the Bill’s basic principle: to provide further durability and flexibility to the institutions of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have one particular concern. It relates to new paragraph 1(1)(c), as proposed by Clause 4—titled “Ministerial Code of Conduct”—and the reference to Ministers upholding the Nolan principles. There is a pre-history here. I do not expect the noble Lord, Lord Caine, to be able to resolve it tonight because it is rather messy but the pre-history is that, in 2011, the then Government decided that it was not desirable for the Committee on Standards in Public Life have a role in the devolved regions, particularly Northern Ireland—or Northern Ireland in particular in the context of this Bill. As it happens, I became the chairman of the committee a few months later, after that decision. Nobody in Northern Ireland noticed that Northern Ireland had been removed from the sway of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Throughout 2013-14, Members of the Assembly constantly insisted that my committee play a role with respect to this or that issue—indeed, at one point, it gave evidence to a Select Committee in the Assembly on these issues—but we had in effect been removed.

There is one thought here. The issues that brought down the Assembly were in a sense Nolan principles issues. I completely agree with the observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Godson, earlier, reflecting on the remarks in this House of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, on 6 December 2018. He said that the collapse of the Assembly contributed greatly to what he saw as the deep flaws in the 2018 withdrawal agreement. The overall problem is the way in which that agreement—and you can also argue this about the 2019 agreement—is an imposition from the top down on the people of Northern Ireland. That was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. This is a dangerous and risky thing to do, and it was made much more possible by the absence of the Assembly in the years leading up to the 2018 agreement, and indeed the 2017 joint report that set in stone so much of what subsequently followed.

I cannot honestly claim that, if the committee on standards had had a role in Northern Ireland, it would have averted the collapse of the Assembly, because there is such a thing as the selfish strategic interest of a number of parties that helped to bring that about. However, I can say that it is now slightly airy and weak for there to be a reference in this document to the Nolan principles as being central to the functioning of Ministers, when the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the guardian of the Nolan principles, is not actually present in Northern Ireland.

I would like the Minister to inquire within government: is there any way this question can be looked at again? We seem to have lost something. We certainly lost something by the loss of the Assembly in the lead-up to the 2018 withdrawal agreement. That was the point made so powerfully that day by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy.

Before I conclude, I will make one point about the underlying principle of the Bill, which I strongly support, and one comment. The underlying principle shows that the UK Government are determined to achieve stability in Northern Ireland. Last Thursday I was speaking in Dublin at one of the Royal Irish Academy series of discourses, which started in the late 18th century. Afterwards I talked to a number of people involved in political and economic life in Dublin. What slightly surprised me was an idea in their minds that the UK Government were not committed to stability, that the current debate going on between the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and Maroš Šefčovič is not about real issues—well, I think they thought it was about real issues; everybody knows there are real issues, including medicines for Northern Ireland and so on—and that somehow there was no point in responding to the concerns of the United Kingdom Government because fundamentally they just liked and were addicted to having rows in and around these issues.

First of all, there are real issues and I do not think the UK Government are doing anything other than the correct thing in raising them. Indeed, the very fact that the EU has made substantial moves in response to the initiatives from the noble Lord, Lord Frost—moves that would not have been made absent his efforts—shows that there are real, substantive issues here.

The point I really want to make about the Bill is simple. It is coming from a Government who are much criticised but determined to defend the institutions of the Good Friday agreement. That is exactly how the Minister opened his speech tonight. It is about stability and maintaining the institutions in and around the Good Friday agreement. It sends out a clear signal that we do not wish or need to see these endless, difficult debates and threats to the institutions continue for ever. We want to see stability.