Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
My Lords, first, I apologise for my non-participation at Second Reading, due to the fact that I was at Queen’s University on that day receiving an honorary professorship, and in Committee because I had Covid. However, I watched that stage from the comfort of my bedroom and found that some very interesting points were made on that day. I support and endorse the comments made by my noble friend Lord Murphy and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie.
The Bill would have been much better dealt with in the Northern Ireland Assembly by its Members. Obviously, however, there is a necessity for the UK Government, via the Northern Ireland Office, to bring forward this legislation in Parliament because it could not seem, regrettably, to be progressed through the Northern Ireland Assembly. I support the clauses and central purpose of the Bill: to deliver on large aspects of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which was the basis of an agreement between the five main parties in Northern Ireland, resulting in the formation of the Executive, the Assembly and other institutions in early January 2020. I support the Bill and want to see it implemented, subject, obviously, to the amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, along with others that I have tabled in respect of powers to do with the Secretary of State.
I believe in and support the Irish language. I did Irish at school up to GCSE/O-level and then attended, on two separate occasions, the Gaeltacht in north-west Donegal. You were expected to speak Irish in the house you were allocated there and in the school—the Irish College. I am also a firm believer that place names in Ireland, both north and south, and many words in Irish inform and teach us about her heritage, our unique geographical landscape and our environment. In fact, many of our towns on the island, north and south, have Anglicised versions of the old Irish names. That is not by way of a political point; it is simply a historical fact of heritage.
I also support the provisions for Ulster Scots as a linguistic grouping that transcends traditions in Northern Ireland. In many ways, perhaps it should not be conflated with identity, but I understand the pressing amendments in that respect. My name is from the lowland Scots, so I represent the Gael and the Planter, which I do not see as an offensive personal identification mechanism. Like the Ulster poet John Hewitt, I see that as a means of identification because it represents the richness and beauty of diversity and challenges us all on that necessary path to reconciliation.
To revert to the amendments on public authorities, I am very much in agreement with my colleagues who have just spoken. I suppose part of the reasoning behind the original drafting was that the Bill was meant to be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, hence there was no reference to the Northern Ireland Office and the Human Rights Commission, which has direct responsibility and derives that authority from the Northern Ireland Office.
I make a special plea to the Minister, because we are dealing with this in the UK Parliament, to give due consideration to and accept these amendments. I also suggest, if that is not possible today, that he goes back to his ministerial colleagues in the NIO to see what may be possible and considered acceptable through the passage from this House to the other place, and in so doing that have a period of reflection. I know that these issues were also discussed in Committee because other areas are not included, such as the UK Passport Office, vehicle tax and registration, the Parades Commission, Covid testing and money and tax services.
I believe that for the provisions of the Bill to have meaning in government circles, the two mentioned here—the NIO and Human Rights Commission—need to be immediately included and the Government should give consideration to those and others in the fullness of time. I fully support this amendment.