|Tue 14th November 2017||
Northern Ireland Budget Bill
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
|8 interactions (4,497 words)|
Northern Ireland Budget Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Lord Duncan of SpringbankMain Page: Lord Duncan of Springbank (Conservative - Life peer)
Department Debates - View all Lord Duncan of Springbank's debates with the Northern Ireland Office
My Lords, it is a great privilege and pleasure to be able to take part in this very important debate on a very small Bill. First, however, I welcome the Minister to his position. I think that this is the first speech he has made in the Chamber regarding Northern Ireland, and I think he did a great job of it, bearing in mind the circumstances in which it was delivered.
I shall touch on the issues affecting security in Northern Ireland that occurred over the weekend. It was particularly unfortunate that it occurred in Omagh, which has seen such terrible devastation in the past, and was so reminiscent of what occurred in Enniskillen. It shows that if there is no progress politically in Northern Ireland, vacuums are created that can sometimes be filled by men and women of violence.
Of course I support the Bill; we cannot do anything else. There has to be a Budget in Northern Ireland. I was for two years the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland and I understand the issues. We have to pay for public services, so I doubt whether there is anybody in this Chamber who would disagree with the fact that the Bill is necessary.
I think that there is an issue of accountability. This is a Westminster Parliament and a United Kingdom Government bringing in a Bill on a Budget for Northern Ireland without any political involvement from elected politicians in Northern Ireland so far as the Assembly is concerned. In his wind-up, will the Minister address the issues of accountability? He has mentioned the auditors and the Comptroller and Auditor-General, but they are not politicians. They are civil servants who have to draw up and then check their own budgets, in a sense, even though they are from a different department. If this continues for any length of time, there may be a role for, say, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland in the other place to look at the Budget or for Parliamentary Questions to be tabled in both Houses. I will be grateful for the Minister’s views on that.
I want to touch very briefly on the Secretary of State’s role in all this. He has done a very good job. He has been extremely committed, very sincere and very hard-working and has done his level best to try to bring, particularly, the two main parties in Northern Ireland together. No one can fault him on doing that, but I think that all would agree that today is a major turning point in events in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom for those of us who are interested in and committed to the future of Northern Ireland. It may not be de jure direct rule, but it may be de facto direct rule and that we are almost drifting towards direct rule and the end of devolution. That is a stark warning to everybody involved in Northern Ireland and to the political parties, particularly the two main parties. To be fair to the DUP, it has always supported devolution. It has been a devolutionist party. It wants devolution to occur in Northern Ireland, but it ought perhaps to look again at the issues, for example with regard to the Irish language Act.
I understand the issues—I come from an English-speaking part of Wales. Roughly 25% of the population of Wales speaks Welsh, but not in my area. Ironically, it was a Conservative Government who brought in the Welsh Language Act, and there were difficulties. But I hope that the DUP negotiators and those who have been involved in these matters can look towards another part of the United Kingdom with regard to how we deal with language issues and see that the union has not fallen apart because there was a Welsh Language Act in Wales.
So far as Sinn Fein is concerned, of course it is right to worry about parity of esteem for both sides in the community, but one has to ask whether it is worth dismantling the whole apparatus of government—the Executive, the Assembly and everything that goes with it—when you can have talks with the Government in parallel? Why on earth should we not have an Assembly and an Executive in Belfast who deal with health, education and all the other issues, but at the same time have parallel talks rather than bringing it all down?
Of course the other irony in this is that Sinn Fein—like other parties in Northern Ireland, but particularly Sinn Fein—has argued for the last 20 years or so that the Good Friday agreement is something by which all should abide. The Good Friday agreement includes the establishment of an Executive and an Assembly. I chaired the strand 1 talks, and it was an integral part of the whole agreement. When the people of Ireland, north and south, voted on that agreement, they voted on the establishment of an Executive and an Assembly. The sooner and the quicker those are up, the better. The Government need to perhaps have another look at the way in which they deal with the negotiations in the coming weeks, negotiations which I am sure will continue. My honourable friend Owen Smith, the shadow Secretary in the other place, has touched on some of the issues, and I would like to touch on just one or two before I conclude.
The first has been mentioned many times—I mentioned it to the Minister last week. There is a case for the Heads of Government—the Prime Minister and, where appropriate, the Taoiseach in Ireland—to involve themselves more directly in trying to solve this problem. Quite frankly, telephone calls are not good enough. Given the weight of the positions of Prime Ministers, actually going to Belfast, getting the parties together and talking to them would be hugely symbolic and hugely positive. It might not work—sometimes it did not. In Leeds Castle, that approach did not work. But with the Good Friday agreement, the St Andrews agreement and other agreements, it did. However, it simply has not been tried. That should be looked at really seriously from a Heads of Government point of view.
There should also be round-table, all-party talks in Northern Ireland. Yes, of course the DUP and Sinn Fein are the two biggest parties. Yes, of course they should be talking to each other all the time. But there are other parties in Northern Ireland too. There is a point to bringing them all together, because they can interact with each other, give ideas to each other and embarrass each other. They can get round a table and try to resolve these things. Again, could the Minister liaise with his right honourable friend the Secretary of State to try to achieve that?
There is also a case—it might take legislation but it would be worth it—for the Assembly itself actually to meet and deliberate. When I was Finance Minister, in 1999 I think it was, I went to the Assembly and presented the Budget. For a whole afternoon, Members of the Assembly from all parties were able to question me about the contents of that Budget. Why can they not do that on this occasion? Bringing together Members of the Assembly in Stormont means that they are again coming face to face and might be able to come up with a resolution of the issues that divide them.
Direct rule, if it comes back, will not be a solution but a tragedy. It is so very easy for it to return, but so very difficult then to restore devolved government. I was five years as a direct rule Minister in Northern Ireland, and although I thoroughly enjoyed it and appreciated the political role that I had, I was always embarrassed at being a direct rule Minister. I was a Member of Parliament for a Welsh valley constituency: not one person in Northern Ireland had voted for me, but I had to take decisions on health, schools, roads and local government. It is wrong. Those decisions should be taken by people in Northern Ireland elected by people in Northern Ireland, particularly given that in the House of Commons there are 650 Members of Parliament, but only 17 come from Northern Ireland, and not one nationalist voice is heard in that Chamber. That cannot be right when it comes to bringing the Government to account for what they do for Northern Ireland. I do not think direct rule is an answer.
Nor should this Bill be an excuse to give up. The issues that we had to consider 20 years ago—prisoner releases, the police, the courts, the establishment of institutions, relations between the north and south of Ireland, and many others—were resolved by talking. There is no reason in this wide world why we cannot do that again.
Overhanging all this mess is the business of Brexit and the fact that in only the past week or so, the European Union has again raised the issue of the border: a huge issue for everybody, north and south—and for all of us in the United Kingdom and in Europe generally. There is no voice from Northern Ireland. There is no Minister, not one person elected from Northern Ireland, who is addressing these issues. The sooner that is done, the better.
Break in Debate
My Lords, I take this opportunity to welcome the new Minister to this Northern Ireland brief. I am sure he will find it interesting. I join the Minister and most noble Lords who have spoken in condemning the actions of the people who left a viable pipe bomb in Omagh on Remembrance Sunday, on a day and in a place designed to cause maximum harm and shock. It was a truly contemptible act. That awful incident is a timely and salutary reminder of Northern Ireland’s past—a past everyone in this House hoped to have left long behind us. Events like this are also a reminder of the propensity of violence in Northern Ireland to fill a vacuum when politics fails. That has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords tonight. There has been a failure by the majority parties in Northern Ireland to come back together into a power-sharing Government. I do not enjoy saying this but I am afraid that it is also a failure of the Secretary of State’s Government to bring about the restitution of trust and the reconstitution of the Assembly and its institutions.
The Official Opposition support the Bill and I make it clear that we will support it tonight. We believe that the Secretary of State had no choice but to bring forward this Budget on the advice of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and we accept the arguments the Minister has made in that regard. Northern Ireland’s public services need to be supported. Nobody has quite claimed that direct rule is a panacea but there have been claims that it is a good thing. I do not think that it is but there is an extra ingredient in that doubt—namely, that the present Government are propped up by a voting agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party. Whether we like it or not and whether it is accurate or not, I am sure that folk here know that this is about how things look and about perceptions in Northern Ireland. As soon as a decision is taken on spending under direct rule that the nationalist community thinks and believes—or wants to think and believe—is biased against it, the cycle will start again. I do not think that is a good thing.
The Secretary of State has effectively said that this is a flat budget for the Northern Ireland departments but within that headline figure there are shifts between departments, with cuts for some and increases for others. If that decision was not made by a Northern Ireland Executive Minister or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, it was made by civil servants, who are unaccountable and who do not now have a clear line of accountability to elected politicians in Northern Ireland. Although we accept that the Bill is necessary, and we also pay tribute to the Civil Service for its service, the Government must acknowledge there is a democratic deficit here. In financial terms this Budget is only a quick fix until the end of March.
Devolution, not direct rule—we are almost 11 months on from the collapse of the Northern Ireland institutions. The answer we seek, in keeping with the Good Friday agreement, is a return to devolution. The Secretary of State is right to say that direct rule would be a huge backwards step for Northern Ireland. Experience tells us that as soon as we have direct rule, it is very hard to get rid of it. We are told that progress has been made, but communities in Northern Ireland are not seeing any change. It is clear that what has been done over those 11 months is not working.
The key question for the Secretary of State and the Government is: what are they going to do differently now to take this process forward? An idea was put forward by my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, with all his credibility and experience, of having the Assembly sit and discuss, while not legally taking decisions. That was welcomed by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who, again, has contributed a massive amount to the peace process in Northern Ireland and who can speak with that authority. We hope that that proposal or idea can be pursued by the Government.
In addition, have the Secretary of State and the Government considered the prospect of an independent chair for the talks, to give them new impetus? I know that some people will say that not all interventions by Prime Ministers and other independent people have worked. However, what is the alternative? We have to try everything. We would like a response from the Minister about the prospect of appointing an independent chair.
Have the Government considered the option of round-table talks? We all know that such talks can be unwieldy and problematic, but in the past they have also been the platform for breakthrough and have allowed for public scrutiny and for smaller parties to have their say. It is essential that a forum is created where the smaller parties in Northern Ireland have their say, not just the two main parties. We urge the Minister to consider whether round-table talks could have the role in the future that has worked in the past.
Such round-table talks have worked particularly well when the authority and power of the office of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has been brought to bear on a process. We can think of no greater public duty for our Prime Minister than to serve the process in Northern Ireland. What personal intervention and effort will the Prime Minister now bring to the process that has so far been lacking? We believe that communities in Northern Ireland will not understand why the Prime Minister—the Prime Minister of our country—has at the very least given the perception of being so distant from this process. It was gratifying to hear the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, also mention this. Again, he has a terrific record in Northern Ireland of contributing to peace, and his voice should be listened to.
In the case of failure, the Secretary of State will at some point have to give a road map of what he and the Government plan to do. As well as considering direct rule Ministers, he must also consider how best to keep the institutions alive to allow such things as the north-south arrangement to persist and to be properly served, and to enable proper and well-defined interest from the Government of the Republic of Ireland during direct rule. That needs to be considered so that the spirit as well as the letter of the Good Friday agreement is adhered to.
It has been a privilege and a heavy responsibility for me tonight to listen to such experienced, weighty, well-intentioned people, most of whom, if not all, I certainly consider personal friends. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, came up with an idea for the Democratic Unionist Party. He said that Sinn Fein should transparently be offered an Irish language Act, and he asked whether it would be wrong if, at the same time, the Government offered support for the culture of most working-class unionist communities in Northern Ireland—the Orange institution and the Williamite tradition. If that is the culture there, what is wrong with offering that in order to get people back to the table and to get them talking? The noble Lord has certainly proved that he is a man of ideas, and I understand what he says even more when I see the cohesion between my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, the noble Lords, Lord Trimble and Lord Alderdice, and all the people involved in the talks.
Therefore, we are looking for a breakthrough and an innovative idea to bring this impasse to a conclusion. There are people throughout this House tonight who are full of ideas and who can surely contribute if we can get people talking together again. As usual, and quite rightly, we all support the Government in any initiative that they come up with to try to get this done. I make it clear that we will support the Bill tonight.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time, and passed.