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

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. It is good to hear the words that she had to say and the way in which she said them.

I join noble Lords across the House in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Caine, to his position. It is not only about his experience and knowledge; people think of his personal interest and desire to do something. It makes a big difference when people believe that a particular noble Lord or Minister has integrity in what they are doing, and that is something that he will bring to this role. He will know that I have said on many occasions that the people of Northern Ireland—indeed, many of their representatives here, including noble Lords—have often felt that it is a neglected part of the discussions that take place here. I think there is some truth in that, but with him as a Minister here I think people can be reassured, and that will go a long way towards helping with this situation.

I thank many noble Lords for welcoming me to this position. At the moment, I am merely off the subs bench for my noble friend Lord Murphy—but you never know where that is going to go. It is a privilege for me to wind up this debate for Her Majesty’s Opposition. As noble Lords will know, and as others have mentioned, I have had the privilege of the post of shadow Secretary of State twice over the years, first when Ed Miliband was leader of the Labour Party and then under Jeremy Corbyn—which was a challenge in itself.

I visited all the parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland—in fact, the constituencies of former Members of Parliament here. I did so not only to show a commitment but to try to gain a better understanding of the sorts of issues that we talk about here and to meet and talk to the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that, as a result of that, I better understand the challenges that there still are but also the way in which the determination and work of so many people here has led to huge amounts of progress. In rereading the history and in the visits that I made, I have always been struck by the way in which so many people, including many people here, overcame huge difficulties and challenges, things that I could not possibly comprehend in my own life.

I was thinking about when I went to Stormont and met Peter Robinson as First Minister alongside Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister in a functioning Northern Ireland Government. I know that a couple of years later, in 2017, the Assembly collapsed and did not function for three years, but many noble Lords and others spent those three years trying to restore the Assembly according to the principles on which it had been based. In January 2020—notwithstanding the point that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, made about the facts of it; I take that point—an agreement was reached by the majority in the New Decade, New Approach document. It is the implementation of that which we have been discussing today, and which indeed was discussed in the other place.

The Minister will know that the Bill has much support in this place, as we want it used as a springboard to move forward to the promise of a better future for all in Northern Ireland. Quite rightly, though, as many noble Lords have stated in this debate, there are issues of concern that will quite rightly be raised in Committee, not as a way of opposing what the Government are doing but to try to improve the legislation and take it forward.

To go back to the point about the noble Lord, Lord Caine, being the Minister here, I think people believe that he will listen to the debate and try to act on it. Whether that changes the primary legislation, who knows? But people will know that in the discussions that he has with civil servants, with people and their representatives in Northern Ireland and with noble Lords in this House, there is someone who will take account of what is being said to him and try to influence it.

Without going through every contribution, let me highlight a couple of those issues. The contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, are customarily thoughtful, whether here or in the other place; he highlighted the protocol, which I want to ask the Minister about. The noble Lords, Lord Empey, Lord Godson, Lord Hay, Lord Browne, Lord McCrea, and my noble friend Lady Ritchie, all in different ways raised the protocol. It is of fundamental importance to the context in which this debate is taking place. It is almost beyond how we have got to this point. We are here and if we want this to move forward and for the Assembly to function, unionists, nationalists and those of all strands of opinion must come together to find a solution. As my noble friend Lady Smith said, you would have thought that representatives from Northern Ireland would be involved in those discussions. I find that deeply disappointing.

The noble Lord, Lord Frost, is leading the negotiations for the Government. Can the noble Lord, Lord Caine, with his knowledge and understanding of Northern Ireland, say anything about whether his appointment will make any difference to the way in which those negotiations are taking place? He may not want to answer that or may not be able to, but people are saying that this cannot just carry on without some acknowledgement of the difficulties that it is causing and how to overcome them without upsetting nationalist opinion or part of unionist opinion.

Can the Minister undertake to speak to the noble Lord, Lord Frost, to ensure that he is aware of the discussions and the points that have been made by so many noble Lords in this debate on the seriousness of the situation? I know that he understands the seriousness, but what will he do about it in representing Her Majesty’s Government in negotiations that are taking place between the UK and the EU, and the impact that those negotiations have on Northern Ireland? To be fair, I do not expect the Minister to be able to say that he will do so, but can he undertake at least to talk to the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and emphasise the importance of this? That might provide some reassurance.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, made a really important point about new paragraph 1(1)(c) in Clause 4 and how upholding the Nolan principles relates to the Committee on Standards not applying to the devolved Administrations. I am sure that the Minister will take that forward. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Godson, for his reference to my noble friend Lord Murphy, who is not well enough to be with us in person. He is taking the necessary precautions, but the quote from him that the noble Lord used shows the importance of establishing the Assembly and having it up and running. That would show the people of Northern Ireland, or their representatives, that the voice of Northern Ireland is properly heard wherever it needs to be.

I thank my noble friend Lady Ritchie for highlighting again the principles of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the subsequent agreements. Whenever particular issues arise in Northern Ireland, it is always something to read those documents and look at the brilliance of how they were negotiated. People overcame difficulties that nobody expected would be overcome.

I thank my noble friend Lord Hain for his contribution. He is right to point out the issue of legacy. I am sure that the Minister will say that it is not necessarily within the scope of this Bill and will have to be dealt with in other Bills, but it is an issue that must be dealt with.

These legacy issues impact on the context within which other legislation is discussed. If the Minister were able to say something about when we might expect some discussion of this and some legislation, people would find it reassuring, even if they disagreed with it, that the Government were coming forward with this. We would know where we were, and that would provide some context for all this.

This has been an important debate. There are issues around petitions of concern, what powers caretaker Ministers—however we want to describe them—will have, who will monitor them and who will hold them to account, what it means with respect to standards and so on. However, the Bill provides progress, but we need that progress to come quickly—and the commencement period is something the Minister will have to address. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in a Northern Ireland debate again, and I hope that the discussions we have had, and my contribution and that of my noble friend Lady Smith, help to inform the debate and that we get back to the place where we want to be: a functioning Northern Ireland Executive, with a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly, working with the UK Government to provide for the people of Northern Ireland.