All 4 Lord Murphy of Torfaen contributions to the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022

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Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Excerpts
2nd reading
Tuesday 7th June 2022

(2 years ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it has been an interesting debate. I sometimes wonder how we ever passed the Good Friday agreement, but we did. We had similar arguments about issues perhaps much more significant than the language 25 years ago. Comparing this with what has occurred in Wales, where I was a Member of Parliament for many years, the Welsh language has been treated in a way which I never thought would happen as an English-speaking Welshman. I am deeply proud of the fact that I am an English-speaking Welshman from the Welsh valleys, but I am also deeply proud of the fact that perhaps 20% to 25% of the people in Wales regard Welsh as their first language, and the vast majority of them regard themselves as being as British as anybody in this Chamber.

In many ways, over the last 20 to 30 years there has been a revolution, but it has taken away the politicisation of the Welsh language—which has been touched on in the debate as far as Irish is concerned—and made it much more acceptable. My former constituency, which is the most anglicised constituency in Wales, has three Welsh-medium schools, everybody is taught Welsh, and the vote for Plaid Cymru is minimal. That does not mean to say that there are no problems, because there still are.

Of course, you have to deal with the enormous sensitivity around language issues—I will take the example of Wales before I come on to the Bill itself, because it is a good comparison. You have to ensure that you tailor the language to wherever the majority of Welsh language speakers might be, and do it in a slightly different way where there are English speakers—but you do it in a way that suggests there is nothing unusual about it any more.

I was never taught Welsh, because I was in Monmouthshire, a county which in my day was actually English, although its loyalties were Welsh. I just feel that everybody ought to calm down a bit and realise that things can happen that will not be so difficult that they will mean something which a weaponization of the language would imply. It is not like that. It can be like that, but if you deal with it properly and sensitively, it need not be.

Of course, it is about identity. The language we speak is part of our identity. In 1860, my great-grandparents came from County Cork as Irish speakers. They arrived in a village which was Welsh speaking and the priests who dealt with their religion were Italian Franciscans, so they all had to speak in English. But that did not mean that, somehow or other, their identities were unaffected. What always struck me when I was in Northern Ireland was that, when I talked to people such as Ian Adamson and others from the unionist community, they reminded me of the huge presbyterian Irish language history in Northern Ireland and southern Ireland which goes back hundreds of years, to when language was not an issue of sectarian differences.

A number of noble Lords talked about the Good Friday agreement of 1998; on page 19, there is a section titled “Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity: Economic, Social and Cultural Issues”. Obviously, there is reference to Ulster Scots—and, incidentally, to the languages of the various ethnic communities in Northern Ireland, whom we must not forget—and quite large reference to the Irish language. It is not that it was not dealt with in 1998—it was; in fact, I wrote most of that page—the issue is that, as far as the peace process is concerned, the Irish language issue has not gone away over the last 20 years. It started in 1998 and it is still there. The St Andrews agreement talked about the Irish language, and New Decade, New Approach, on which this Bill is based, dealt with it too.

It is quite interesting that the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, talked about “the package”; just as you cannot take bits out of New Decade, New Approach, the whole point of the Good Friday agreement is that you have to accept it as a package. That package includes having an Assembly up and running and an Executive operating to deal with all these difficult issues. You cannot pick and choose which bits you like. You have to ensure that the whole package is dealt with, and that includes making laws and running the country. Those things are vital. It is an international treaty. The guarantors of the Good Friday agreement are the Irish Government and the British Government. That is why, although of course I have differences with the British Government, on this issue they are absolutely right to honour the pledge they made when the New Decade, New Approach agreement was reached.

There are difficult issues. That is why we have Committee stages in making legislation. We will table amendments, as I am sure other Members of your Lordships’ House will, on the independence of the commissioners, public bodies and other communities—all of which have been raised today. Of course, those things will be raised, as is right and proper. However, the principle of this legislation is that both communities, and those who regard themselves as being in neither, are protected. That is why, although I do not at all like the idea of the Secretary of State coming in and intervening in devolution—even though I was one many years ago—it is a good idea, as in the legislation, that both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will have to agree on both commissioners and on the office, and the Secretary of State will have a role only if that breaks down and people start vetoing each other all the time. That is not the principle behind New Decade, New Approach, so I agree with the Government on that.

But where I think the comparison to the protocol is not right comes back to the package that we were talking about. Of course the protocol has to be addressed. I understand completely what the unionist community feels about it, and I understand the point that we must have consent across the nationalist and unionist communities on issues as major as that—but why did we not get it? Part of the reason was that there was no Assembly and no Executive meeting when all these things were discussed when we were dealing with Brexit. In that case it was Sinn Féin that decided that the Assembly and the Executive should not be up and running. Now we have the DUP saying that they should not be up and running, but of course they should. If noble Lords disagree with a policy in the House of Lords, we do not suddenly dissolve Parliament —we have to deal with it in the ways that we can as a Parliament.

The protocol has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed on its own. Of course, it has to be addressed in the context of the Good Friday agreement, in terms of the consent that is required for it to happen, but you cannot do it by flying over to Belfast for 24 hours and coming back again. It has to be dealt with by a proper negotiating protocol and procedure. I am sure that members of the DUP and other parties in Northern Ireland understand that intensive negotiation is the only real answer to all this.

We need our institutions in Northern Ireland. We need them to deal with issues like this. I feel deeply uncomfortable that the British Parliament should be dealing with these matters, whether it is abortion, this issue, legacy, or whatever it might be. We should not be doing that. This should be a matter for the devolved parliament in Northern Ireland. Why have devolution if we do not use it? On the other hand, if those politicians in Northern Ireland suddenly bring it down and we have no institutions, what else do we do? We cannot have an ungoverned Northern Ireland; it still has to work. I suppose my message, or my plea, to politicians in Northern Ireland—some of whom are in this Chamber today—is to restore the institutions and to start talking seriously amongst yourselves about the protocol, the Irish language and Ulster Scots so that there will be no real reason in this world why the House of Lords should discuss legislation which is really none of our business.

Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL] Debate

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Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Excerpts
Baroness Goudie Portrait Baroness Goudie (Lab)
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My Lords, I will be moving the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, today, as she has Covid—she is very sorry not to be here. I will not speak as well as she would on these issues, but I will speak shortly and to the point, as I know that we are under time pressure.

Clause 1 provides that the office of identity and cultural expression may publish guidance on the duty to have regard to the national and cultural identity principles and other principles relating to national and cultural identity. Amendment 5 in this group provides that “other matters” include the

“effective implementation of international human rights standards relevant to cultural identity and language”.

This is to probe how strong the human rights framework is and whether this is incorporated in the work and language of human rights. I hope that the Minister might look at this and see if we could make the clause much better and warmer, so that more people feel that they could go with it. This amendment also fits in well with New Decade, New Approach.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I very much support my noble friend in her amendment, but I will speak to Amendment 5 in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. It is similar to the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and it provides that “other matters” include the

“effective implementation of international human rights standards relevant to cultural identity and language”.

It is a probing amendment, which emphasises the human rights standards that we have come to expect in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years.

In the Bill, Clause 3 on Ulster Scots and Ulster British traditions includes reference to three specific international instruments, including the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This clause requires the commission to provide advice, support and guidance on the effect and implementation of those instruments in relation to relevant language, arts and literature. I am aware that further amendments later on deal with that, but this is the only reference in the Bill to the wider human rights framework, so Amendment 5 would build on that. Do we need to look more closely at how relevant human rights standards will be embedded across the work of all the bodies established under the Bill?

Of course, this issue goes all the way back to the Good Friday agreement of 1998, a copy of which, by pure chance, I happen to have with me today. It says:

“The British Government will complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights … with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency.”


It goes on to say:

“These additional rights reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and—taken together with the ECHR—constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.”


We have never had a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Over the last 25 years there has not been one. I blame my own Government as much as anybody else for that, as we should have had one. I suppose it is appropriate that the Minister’s colleague, the Deputy Prime Minister, made a Statement a few hours ago in the House of Commons with regard to the European Convention on Human Rights. I wonder whether, in answering us later, the Minister might touch on how important the ECHR is in Northern Ireland and say whether the announcement today will have any implications for Northern Ireland.

I also support Amendment 6 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, which widens the debate out to look at the future of other languages in Northern Ireland, including sign language, and what could be achieved.

I will make a general point. We are in Committee and are unlikely to be voting on the amendments, which are overwhelmingly probing amendments, but it seems to me that they have to be in the context of New Decade, New Approach, and as closely related to that agreement as possible. They might not be able to have every single word of it, but it was an agreement across the board in Northern Ireland among all parties represented in the Executive and the British Government, so I hope that when we table amendments we all have that important principle in mind.

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Moved by
2: Clause 1, page 2, leave out lines 5 to 11
Member's explanatory statement
This is part of a set of probing amendments. This is to probe the chosen definition of “public authority” in relevant Clauses.
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I add my thoughts to those of the Minister regarding my noble friend Lady Ritchie, who is seriously disappointed that she could not attend this session. She is on the mend and hopes that she can take part on Report.

Before moving on to Amendment 2, I have two general points on who should be doing this. Of course, I agree that it should not be us. When we put forward these ideas all those years ago in the Good Friday agreement and later in New Decade, New Approach, the idea that this should be done in the Moses Room of the House of Lords was anathema. But it has to be done, as the commitment has been made. I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that his party had some reservations about New Decade, New Approach, but the agreement was made between the two Governments and is the only one we have before us. It at least forms the basis of this legislation. I also agree with him that, if there are amendments which improve the legislation and are acceptable across the board—that is the essence—I see no reason why we should not accept them.

I turn to the amendment on public bodies. Again, it is probing. Clause 1 of the Bill provides a strange definition of public authorities—those in Schedule 3 to the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, with the exception of the office of identity and cultural expression. Added to it are the commissioners themselves, the office I have just mentioned, the implementation body to which Part VI of the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 applies, and any body referred to in note 2 of the schedule.

I do not disagree with any of those bodies being named or relevant, but the purpose of the amendment is to see whether the legislation should go more widely than that—such as in Wales, for example, where United Kingdom government departments, as well as those of the Government of Wales, are subject to the Welsh Language Act within Wales. For example, if the NIO is a body operating in Northern Ireland specifically about Northern Ireland, should it be subject to the same regulations as a body defined in the legislation? The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has some doubts about that, because it is not named either as a public body under the definition of “public authority” in the legislation.

This is a probing amendment, and it would be helpful to hear from the Minister what was taken into account when deciding on the definition and what has been done to take note of possible gaps in it. I note the power of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to add or remove authorities from the list. Does the Minister believe that that power would have to be used often and, indeed, whether it should be there at all?

The other amendments in this group go into further detail on the meaning of “public authority” and the expectations and duty that such bodies will be under to engage with the framework and bodies established under the Bill. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s reply: should other public bodies be added to the list? I beg to move.

Lord Brougham and Vaux Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux) (Con)
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The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, is taking part remotely. I invite the noble Baroness to speak.

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Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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I can: there has been a review of the number of days on which the union flag is flown officially throughout Great Britain. There has been a reduction in the number of such days, and that will be reflected in Northern Ireland legislation which I will bring before your Lordships’ House fairly soon. All that is doing is ensuring that Northern Ireland is in step with the rest of the United Kingdom.

In conclusion, the provisions of the Bill do not have the effect that has been suggested in the noble Baroness’s speech, and for that reason I cannot accept the amendment.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I have just a few brief points to make. At the moment, 1998 appears to be a favourite date. I reflect on the fact that the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was the last Act that I took through Committee from the Front Bench, 25 years ago—it did reflect the agreement, of course.

I was interested in the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on how much about the Irish language was mentioned in the Good Friday agreement; it was not reflected in the 1998 Act, of course. What we did say—I was responsible for these issues 25 years ago—was that the British Government would take “resolute action” to promote the Irish language; they had in a previous paragraph referred to Ulster Scots but also, interestingly, to the languages of other ethnic minorities, by which I suppose they mean the languages of Chinese minorities, for example. The only statutory duty was placed

“on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education in line with current provision for integrated education”.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, is therefore right that this was not legislated for by way of an Irish language Act but, of course, things changed later with the St Andrews agreement, where further details emerged about what should or should not happen to the Irish language Act. The difference between that agreement and this agreement is what we are dealing with today, I suppose. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord about the need for equality of treatment for both traditions and languages. We should not deviate from that principle at all.

I am still a bit puzzled about why the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is not covered by this legislation—or, for that matter, the Northern Ireland Office. The Minister will of course know that the Welsh Language Act 1993 is applicable to the Wales Office, the equivalent territorial department, even though the Wales Office is a United Kingdom Government department with a small office in Wales and an office in Whitehall.

We have had some interesting debate on this issue. Nevertheless, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment in my name.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.
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Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey (UUP)
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My Lords, I added my name to this amendment. It reminds me of an issue in a negotiation that has been brought in at the last minute as a kind of balancing act. It has all the hallmarks that it is not thought-through, but looks good and allows people to point to it as a great opportunity and success. However, there is a very serious point here and my noble friend paints it, as usual, in a very significant historical context.

Has the Minister had the opportunity to look in some detail at this? Obviously, with the terms of reference, there is a cost involved and all sorts of things that will need to be established—are we going to seek funding from third-party sources, whether it be academia, business or various trusts or foundations? Nevertheless, I do not think that this should be treated as a throw-away; there is a very serious purpose here. If we understand the background and history that we have come from, perhaps it is not too much to hope that we can avoid some of the mistakes that we might otherwise make in the future. Our history can teach us a lot. Some objective academic work would be warmly welcomed and would contribute to progress in Northern Ireland.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, briefly, I support the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, in his amendment. I am currently reading the biography of Castlereagh by Professor Bew—I also commend his biography of Clement Attlee, which is very good. I am not quite sure that there is a connection between the two, other than the author.

It is a very good idea to establish an organisation such as this. Anything that promotes reconciliation is bound to do good. I merely reflect, on the previous—rather heated—group of amendments on costs, that, of course, the issue of cost is important, particularly at the current time with all the pressures on the health service and everything else; however, if the costs of these things mean that you can establish the Assembly and Executive, then it will be worth it.

Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow (DUP)
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My Lords, Amendment 10 is in my name. I have good news for noble Lords: this will be my briefest contribution because there is no way that I can gainsay anything that has already been said. I will not move my amendment because I give way to the learned, able, capable noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and all those who have spoken on this issue. That is all I have to contribute on that issue.

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Moved by
40: Clause 6, page 11, line 36, at end insert—
“(aa) arrange for a statement to be made to each House of Parliament, and”Member’s explanatory statement
This probing amendment would require the Secretary of State to make a statement to Parliament when they use the powers of direction under this Clause.
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, we now come to quite a difficult part of the Bill, in my view. The Minister referred to the fact that he could not quite remember all the detail in New Decade, New Approach. Of course, there have been so many agreements that even my memory is starting to fade now, and I am much older than the Minister. My other impression is that, if you are an old man or woman in Northern Ireland, you are likely to remember far more than if you were from Wales, for all sorts of different reasons.

Memories go back a long way. One of my memories, which I do not like, is of being on a plane between Belfast and London and having to sign a document that suspended the Assembly. I thought that that was one of the most unpleasant things I would ever have to do, because the whole purpose of the Good Friday agreement and the subsequent agreements was to ensure that Northern Ireland had its own Government, Parliament and apparatus of government. To see that go caused huge distress—I use that word specifically—to all of us who had been involved in trying to bring about change in Northern Ireland. When the Secretary of State and this Parliament, this House of Lords and the House of Commons, are given powers to intervene, whether it is in this Bill or on the abortion regulations yesterday—whatever it may be—it is awful that it has to happen, because it goes completely against everything that we thought, and I hoped, devolution would bring to Northern Ireland.

Again, these are probing amendments. Obviously, we will not put them to votes, but we need to know in what capacity the Secretary of State would intervene. I understand that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister must make agreements on various issues affected by this legislation. I also understand that there could be considerable differences in view between them. However, there comes a time when there is no mechanism by which this legislation could go forward if either the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister effectively vetoed the other. The legislation would not go forward. I hope that it will not happen, and that the Minister can indicate in his reply that he believes that it will not happen. When the Secretary of State has to step in, could that be constrained a bit more by way of scrutiny? All the legislation says is that the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament the direction that he or she makes. I do not know whether that is sufficient. The Secretary of State should be made to make a statement, preferably an Oral Statement, to both Houses about why he or she has decided to step in and intervene. The balance would then be struck a little more.

My noble friend Lady Ritchie has tabled amendments that go into a bit more detail about that and put down a timescale. They intend that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should appoint a commissioner within 30 days, say, and if that does not happen the Secretary of State should be given another 30 days so that it is done in a day. This is all meant to bring out the Minister’s views on what should happen if the Secretary of State intervenes.

I should also point out the excellent report by the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House. The very last paragraph is important. It states:

“The powers could be exercised by the Secretary of State even if there were a functioning Executive and Assembly. The Government states in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill that the powers may be used when the Secretary of State deems it ‘necessary’ to do so, but this is not reflected in the Bill. Clause 6(3) should be amended so that the power of direction in clause 6(2)(b) may be used only when the Secretary of State considers it necessary, rather than appropriate.”


There is a big difference between the two words. What is also interesting about this report is that it expresses exactly the same view that I have just expressed to the Committee about the difficulties—and sorrow, in many ways—of the Secretary of State having to come in and intervene. In a way, it underlies this Committee—indeed, all the stages of this Bill. This Bill simply should not be a matter for this House or the House of Commons; it should be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is why we set it up 25 years ago.

I am interested in what the Minister has to say on this. I do not oppose the Secretary of State having such powers but there should be more scrutiny of and restrictions on how he or she would exercise them. I beg to move.

Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow (DUP)
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My Lords, this amendment would require the Secretary of State to make a Statement to the Commons and the Lords when he or she exercised the override powers established in Clause 6. This would be in addition to an existing obligation to lay a copy in both Houses of any direction given to a Minister or department in Northern Ireland.

I have to say, the amendment is a bit of window dressing. It misses the point completely. Granting the Government powers to take decisions unilaterally in the absence of cross-community agreement rides roughshod over the Belfast agreement as well as the delicate safeguards contained in New Decade, New Approach. It is not enough to suggest that an extra half hour on the Order Paper of this House would make up for the gulf in democratic accountability established by it. For that reason, I and my colleagues are opposed to it.

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Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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I am grateful to my noble friend; I will touch on what he said shortly, I think. I give my assurance to the noble Lords who have spoken on this amendment that I will go away and look at this further before Report.

I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for her amendments, which were spoken to by my noble friend Lord Moylan, and to the members of the Democratic Unionist Party who are in the Committee today for their amendments, which all focus on the powers conferred on the Secretary of State arising from the provisions in Clauses 6 and 7. I will turn to those clauses now, if I may.

I completely understand the noble Lord’s intent that these powers should be exercised only in exceptional circumstances, if at all. I repeat my earlier assurances: the Government would not wish routinely to intervene in transferred matters and the use of any powers in the Bill would require very careful consideration indeed. I have set out some of the factors that the Secretary of State might have to take into account in deciding whether to use the powers in these clauses because we agree that deviating from the overall principles—protecting the devolution settlement and not routinely intervening in transferred matters—would be undesirable.

However, in our view, it remains important to have these powers in the event that matters such as those we are discussing today—identity and language—remain a source of instability. I need not remind the Committee of the potential and capacity that they have to poison and paralyse politics in Northern Ireland, as they did during the period between 2017 and 2020. That is why these powers have been drafted and included; they afford the Secretary of State the latitude to use his discretion if these issues remain a matter of discord.

I complete accept the comments of my noble friend Lord Dodds of Duncairn in referring to New Decade, New Approach. However, the reason we are taking these powers—almost as an insurance policy, if you like—is to deal with the fact that, some two and a half years after New Decade, New Approach, key elements and provisions of that agreement have not been implemented. The Government feel that they have an obligation to ensure that they can be delivered.

At the risk of opening an entirely new front at this late stage, I have heard a number of comments about the Belfast agreement. Noble Lords have heard me express on many occasions my support for that agreement, which has been consistent since 10 April 1998. I gently remind noble Lords that there is a provision in the Belfast agreement that explicitly states that Parliament’s ability to make law for Northern Ireland remains unaffected. That is also reflected in the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

As I said, the powers have been drafted to give the Secretary of State latitude to use his discretion in these areas. They also reflect the fact that the UK Government are necessarily bringing forward in this United Kingdom Parliament primary legislation that was originally for the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to introduce. In our view, it is right in those circumstances that the Secretary of State has the power to ensure the implementation of these commitments, as I have just said.

Of course, as has been stated many times, it is our sincere hope that a new Executive will be formed soon, will implement this legislation and will set up the new bodies for which this Bill provides. With Clause 6, though, the Government are seeking to ensure that there is a path to the implementation of the legislation. The Government are committed to ensuring that the legislation works in practice, and that the commissioners and the office can function effectively so that these New Decade, New Approach commitments are conclusively delivered. Clause 7 is necessary to ensure the effective operation of the provisions made in Clause 6 should the Secretary of State judge it necessary to intervene.

Finally, I very much take on board the comments of my noble friend Lord Lexden. I will reflect on what he said. With those remarks, I urge the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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Well, there we are. My Lords, it is not easy. My heart tells me that the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Dodds, and others are right that the devolution settlement should be protected. If you set up an Assembly and a Government, they should be allowed to get on with things and should not be interfered with every 24 hours by the United Kingdom Government; I accept that. That is one reason I tabled what I thought was a fairly modest amendment to just say, let us have a Statement instead of a directive. It could even go further and have a parliamentary debate, or whatever.

As always, the issue boils down to a short supply of trust. That has to be built up. It has been lost over the past number of years, inevitably, for all sorts of reasons, but there is a difference between this legislation and others, which is that this is essential to the restoration of the Assembly. Sinn Féin brought the Assembly down because of the lack of an Irish language Act, and therefore, if we are saying, “Look, there is so much disagreement we can’t pass this; it’s not going to happen”, the chances are we will go back to square one again. The problem is that people in the unionist community will say, “Well, that’s a veto too, over the Assembly being set up.” I am uncomfortable with it, but I cannot see off the top of my head any way around it. There may be people much cleverer than me who can think of a solution—there we are; there is a good example of someone much cleverer than me.

Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey (UUP)
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The solution is the agreement. Let us suppose Sinn Féin proposes a convicted murderer or somebody who is anathema to a large section of the community to be a commissioner and a DUP Deputy First Minister says, “I can’t appoint that individual, my conscience won’t allow me”. All Sinn Féin has to do is sit it out, whereas if we both know that we have to get agreement, we have to compromise. That is the core of the agreement, and we are taking it out. We have taken it out since the agreement was made. In my opinion, we took it out at St Andrews—the same principle—but that is one example.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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Yes, I understand, and if I was the Secretary of State under those circumstances, I would not invoke special powers, which this Act would eventually do; I would get on a plane and go over there and have a chat for the next two weeks to try to resolve it, negotiate around it and deal with it that way. That is how we have always dealt with things in Northern Ireland. Frankly, that is how what is going on there now should be dealt with. That is the way to do it. That is why I am less than comfortable with this, but I just cannot see a way around it.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, makes a good point. We assume in all the agreements we have made that we can resolve these issues among ourselves. It could be that the Secretary of State could be a referee in all this, and that could be somehow put into legislation. Then, at the end of the day, the decisions are taken by those who should be taking the decisions, rather than a rather clumsy, clunky entrance which says, “All right, you lot, I’ve had enough of you, I’m going to pass the legislation.”

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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I am following the noble Lord very closely. He is absolutely right to say that these are uncomfortable powers. He will be aware, since he has been around in politics a long time, that one does not always necessarily have to be comfortable with something to deem it necessary. He referred earlier to his act on the aeroplane of signing the suspension order of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2000. I recall that suspension was deemed necessary to preserve the institutions.

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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Of course. No one said that any of this is easy; far from it. When he wound up, the Minister was very kind to say that he would look at all the different ideas that have emerged from the discussions and debates here today and come back on Report with something that might satisfy all Members, which will be very difficult in these circumstances. I am sure he understands the feeling behind what is being said: we want this to work, not just because it sets up the Assembly and the Government but because it is right in itself for the Irish language and the Ulster Scots tradition. However, at the same time, we have to ensure that progress is made. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment and hope that the Minister will come back with a slighter better one on Report.

Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL] Debate

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Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Excerpts
Moved by
1: Clause 1, page 2, line 5, after “means” insert “the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and”
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I cannot say that the Report stage in front of us will excite people in the same way that other events might today, but it is still very important for the future stability of Northern Ireland.

Before I go into some small details, I will mention one or two general things about Report stage, and I hope that at the appropriate time, the Minister will be able to comment on them. The first thing is his own letter that he sent to Members of the House of Lords, on the various issues that arose in Committee. He very kindly agreed to reflect on the points that were made in Committee and has come up with a number of ideas and suggestions that I entirely agree with and thank him for. They deal, of course, with the Ulster Scots commissioner, with the Castlereagh Foundation, and with the step-in powers of the Secretary of State. On all three issues, Members of the Committee who spoke some weeks ago will be very pleased with the Minister’s response.

The other general point is to ask what we can do on Report with a Bill that was essentially formed from an agreement made some years ago in Belfast. As your Lordships will know, the New Decade, New Approach deal was struck between the then Secretary of State, the political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government. One reason that they decided to look at this issue of identity and language is, of course, that that issue brought down the Assembly for some three years. So it is hugely significant. However, it means that this Bill really reflects the agreement; I am sure it mostly does. The agreement made in Belfast is incorporated in the Bill and any amendments that we might make should really be in the light of the principle that it should stick as closely as possible to the agreement made. There may be some examples where the wording and other issues can be improved upon in the Bill, but that is the principle.

Another issue that is important, and likely to come up in our debates over the next couple of hours, is the equality of the commissioners: the Irish language commissioner and, of course, the Ulster Scots and Ulster- British tradition commissioner. This is, again, reflecting what was in the agreement made in Belfast.

The amendment that I am moving, signed by my noble friends, is really very simple. When the agreement touched on which public bodies should be put into the Bill—with regard to the Irish language commissioner, for example—some specific government bodies and agencies in Northern Ireland were not included when it seemed logical that they should have been. One was the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; the other was, of course, the Minister’s own department, the Northern Ireland Office—my former department. What is significant is that that body is wholly about Northern Ireland. It is about no other part of the United Kingdom; its duty is to deal with Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State and his or her Ministers’ duties concern Northern Ireland.

Although there is of course a London office for the NIO, there is a more substantial base in Belfast. That is why it seems logical that those bodies should be under the same umbrella of public bodies mentioned in the Bill. I shall be very interested in what the Minister has to say in response to this amendment and I beg to move.

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Lord Caine Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Caine) (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken to these amendments. I say at the outset how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. As I made clear in my first speech from this Dispatch Box as a Minister, while we might not agree on everything all the time, when it comes to Northern Ireland I will always try to adopt as consensual, bipartisan and open an approach as possible. I am very grateful to the noble Lord.

He mentioned the Bill being a faithful implementation of the New Decade, New Approach agreement from January 2020 and that is what the Government have sought to do. However, I agree with other noble Lords that this really should have been dealt with in the Northern Ireland Assembly and not within this Parliament. It is a matter of regret that this is the case. I remember first-hand the period from 2017 to 2020 when these issues paralysed politics in Northern Ireland and led to a prolonged lack of functioning devolved government. It was a particularly frustrating period and I am very sorry that we are going through a similar period now, which I hope will be much shorter lived than last time.

Turning to the amendments, I am grateful to noble Lords for the spirit in which they were moved and spoken to. As noble Lords made clear, they seek to widen the definition of “public authorities” in the Bill beyond those captured in the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016. As noble Lords have mentioned, we had a very wide-ranging discussion in Committee. I am very sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, was unable to be present. I hope that watching proceedings from her bedroom helped mitigate some of the Covid symptoms she might have experienced and aided her recovery, which we all very much welcome.

I do not intend to cover the same ground today as I covered extensively in Committee. However, the definition of public authorities for the purposes of the Bill, as with other parts of the legislation—this goes back to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, about being faithful to New Decade, New Approach—is consistent with the legislation that was drafted by the Office of the Legislative Counsel in Stormont and published alongside New Decade, New Approach. As a result, the Bill does not seek to innovate in respect of that definition by removing or adding public authorities. It seeks to make provision comparable to a situation in which the Assembly, rather than this Westminster Parliament, had taken forward these commitments. The Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and indeed any of the bodies to which the noble Baroness referred, such as the Passport Office, were not intended to be captured by these commitments. That was never agreed and, as I said in Committee, the range of public authorities listed under the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) and in this Bill is substantial and comprehensively covers devolved areas.

The Government consider that it would be inconsistent to expand the definition of public authorities beyond that set out in the draft legislation to which I have referred. Further, adding two or indeed more organisations with functions outside the devolved competence, such as the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, would undermine the overarching approach, which is that the First and Deputy First Ministers should be the sole arbiters when designating public authorities. There are of course provisions in this Bill that would allow the First and Deputy First Ministers to add or subtract from the public authorities that this legislation covers within Northern Ireland. To introduce organisations for which the First and Deputy First Ministers do not have direct responsibility would, I gently suggest, muddy the waters and detract from their role.

I would also suggest that the public in Northern Ireland do not routinely interact with the Northern Ireland Office, which for the most part does not deliver or provide day-to-day front-line services to the public that would seem to trigger the relevant provisions on Irish language and Ulster Scots. Of course, given the close interest of the Northern Ireland Office in the New Decade, New Approach commitments on which the Bill delivers, I would still expect consideration to be given to the national and cultural identity principles set out in the first part of the Bill, and the guidance issued by the respective commissioners. I would expect much the same with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

However, the extension of the legal duty as proposed in these amendments would, in our view, be inconsistent with New Decade, New Approach and seem impractical for the reasons I have given. I therefore hope that noble Lords will not press their amendments.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I understand the points the Minister makes. He also makes the point that, eventually, as this Bill is embedded in Northern Ireland law over the years ahead, the Assembly itself might decide to make changes and that, in the meantime, the bodies to which I have referred—the NIO and Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission —must still stand by the principles that underlie this legislation. So in that regard, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.
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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I can understand much of what the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, is saying. I entirely agree with the Bill where it says that the Irish language commissioner should have powers of due regard if public authorities do not come up to the standards that the commissioner expects. I entirely agree with and in no way denigrate that.

However, I am slightly puzzled, especially in light of what the Minister said earlier about the sensible change that there has been in the title of the commissioner. There is a difference between the way in which the commissioners operate, because they have different functions. Clearly, the Irish language commissioner is concerned about the Irish language, but the Ulster Scots commissioner goes beyond that. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to paragraphs 5 and 6 of the NDNA agreement. Paragraph 5.14 in Annex E says that the commissioner will deal with

“the language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots/Ulster British tradition in Northern Ireland.”

This is followed by another sentence:

“The Commissioner’s remit will include the areas of education, research, media, cultural activities and facilities and tourism initiatives.”


In paragraph 5.16, it goes on to say:

“The functions of the Commissioner will be to … provide advice and guidance to public authorities, including where relevant on the effect and implementation, so far as affecting Ulster Scots, of commitments under”


various charters. So it is quite clear that the agreement meant that the two commissioners, in their different ways, would oversee the work of public authorities in Northern Ireland on the issues that were debated and agreed before that agreement was signed.

There is a case based on getting confidence across the community because, as the Minister knows, nothing can happen properly in Northern Ireland unless there is confidence and trust across all communities in Northern Ireland. Not just the nationalist and unionist communities but everybody has to see that there is fairness, and that people are being treated equally.

There is an opportunity before this Bill goes to the other place for the Government and the Minister—provided there is still a Government in situ over the next few weeks; I rather fancy that, by the time this session has finished, the Minister might be the last Minister of this Government still in office, but we will have to wait and see—to reflect on the points that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and others have made and to listen to other people in Northern Ireland on what the answers to these things might be. It also seems an ideal opportunity, and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, might have mentioned this, to talk to the Ulster- Scots Agency and to the bodies dealing with the Irish language in Northern Ireland to get their views on the progress of the Bill. There is an opportunity to have another look at this to ensure that there is full confidence, across the board, in what is an essential piece of legislation.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, on Monday I had an extremely useful meeting with Ian Crozier of the Ulster-Scots Agency. Although I cannot support these amendments, they do raise some very important points, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, just said.

The Bill as drafted places a duty on public authorities to have “due regard” to the Irish language commissioner, as has been discussed, but creates no such duty in respect of the commissioner responsible for Ulster Scots and the Ulster-British tradition. This is therefore causing some lack of trust and some concern. This difference of approach was not specifically set out in New Decade, New Approach, which suggested that both commissioners should be treated the same way on this point.

Will the Minister respond to the fears that have been expressed in the debate and, indeed, by the Ulster-Scots Agency that treating the two commissioners differently through this legislation risks undermining the credibility of one of the commissioners? Like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, did, I ask whether the Minister has already met the Ulster-Scots Agency. If not, will he do so and listen directly first-hand to its very real concerns?

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Lord Browne of Belmont Portrait Lord Browne of Belmont (DUP)
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My Lords, again, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who unfortunately has matters to deal with back home—we wish him well—and with the kind permission of my noble friend Lord Morrow, I am pleased to move Amendment 24 in their names. I intend to be brief.

Paragraph 27c of the NDNA agreement commits to legislation placing

“a legal duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate the use of Ulster Scots in the education system.”

This is vital, given that we are a signatory to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Article 8 of which requires the state to make available pre-school, primary school, secondary school and university education

“in the relevant regional or minority languages; or … to make available a substantial part … in the relevant regional or minority languages”,

or at least to provide it for those families who request it.

It is also vital because Ulster Scots has now been registered with the framework convention on minority languages, Article 14 of which states that

“the Parties shall endeavour to ensure, as far as possible and within the framework of their education systems, that persons belonging to those minorities have adequate opportunities for being taught the minority language or for receiving instruction in this language.”

Critically, the understanding of language and the national minority language commitment are located very much in terms of a history and a commitment to history in education. The framework agreement asks parties to

“take measures in the fields of education and research to foster knowledge of the culture, history, language and religion of their national minorities and of the majority.”

Clause 5 of this Bill seeks to rise to aspects of this challenge. Its language reflects exactly, so far as it goes, an existing provision in the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 with respect to Irish-medium education, which states:

“It shall be the duty of the Department to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education.”


Crucially, however, this intervention to assist the Ulster Scots language not only testifies to an inequality of treatment, in that it comes much later than the provision for the Irish language, but transparently does not seek to end this inequality of treatment. It fails to honour parity of esteem; the Irish language provision also gives effect to the obligation to encourage and facilitate through the possibility of the allocation of grants, whereas Clause 5 does no such thing. Specifically, the order states:

“The Department may, subject to such conditions as it thinks fit, pay grants to any body appearing to the Department to have as an objective the encouragement or promotion of Irish-medium education.”


Moreover, it is notable that this duty, in respect of Irish, followed the form of a statutory duty in respect of integrated education set out in the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. Again, that duty was supported by a power to make grant payments. Article 64(1) states that:

“It shall be the duty of the Department to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education, that is to say the education together at school of Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils.”


Article 64(2) adds that the department

“may, subject to such conditions as it thinks fit, pay grants to any body appearing to the Department to have as an objective the encouragement or promotion of integrated education.”

Once again, this inequality of treatment is inexplicable and sends out the clear message that it is sufficient to generate an image of concern regarding Ulster Scots and the Ulster Scots language without providing a credible delivery mechanism comparable with that afforded the Irish language or other concerns, such as integrated education. This is of real concern to the Ulster- Scots Agency and constitutes a completely indefensible form of difference of treatment. Amendment 24 puts this right by ensuring the equal treatment for the Ulster Scots language that is vital if the principle of the parity of esteem is to be upheld.

I very much hope that the Minister can support this modest, permissive but very important amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I have some sympathy with the amendment, or at least with what lies behind it. I do not see any point in pushing such an amendment to a vote, but it raises the issue. I fully support the statutory duty on the Executive in Belfast to fund Irish language education through the various means. However, bearing in mind that this Bill is new, introducing three new public offices—the office and the two commissioners—the Minister might make inquiries with the Department of Education there over the next few weeks regarding this difference of approach in terms of funding. Perhaps the meeting that he intends to have with the Ulster-Scots Agency can clear this up, but it appears to be a dichotomy.

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful again to the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, for his comments in moving Amendment 24. As I pointed out earlier, New Decade, New Approach and this Bill provide a new specific legal duty for Ulster Scots in relation to the education system in Northern Ireland. This will address the current lack of statutory provision for Ulster Scots within that system.

However, a specific new grant-making power, which would be the effect of Amendment 24, was, of course, not committed to in New Decade, New Approach. It would be inappropriate in this context for the UK Government to impose financial commitments beyond those set out in that document. I also recall that noble Lords in Committee raised what the duty that is already set out in the Bill, on encouraging and facilitating the use and understanding of Ulster Scots in the education system, would mean in practice. I am therefore pleased to provide a clearer view to noble Lords on what this new and important legal duty might entail. I hope that this will speak to their concerns on this matter.

The new education duty in the Bill will enable the use and understanding of Ulster Scots to become part of the framework of the education system in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Department of Education will be able to do anything necessary to meet that duty. In that context, I note that the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 provides for the encouragement and facilitation of Irish-medium education and the mechanism of supporting this specific type of schooling, with the grant-making powers provided to specifically support Irish-medium schools.

Noble Lords will understand that, as a UK Minister, I cannot speak on behalf of the Northern Ireland Department of Education. The department has a Minister, a member of the DUP, who will need to consider this matter too, but it would seem to me that meeting this new duty in respect of Ulster Scots would perhaps entail the commissioning of educational materials for use in schools. Steps to meet the duty could also include seeking appropriate consultancy on the facilitation of Ulster Scots in schools, or encouraging relevant organisations in providing tuition in schools. I would stress, however, that this remains a matter for the Northern Ireland Department of Education to consider.

In respect of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I am very happy to reflect on what he said. In that spirit, I would encourage the noble Lords to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Dodds of Duncairn Portrait Lord Dodds of Duncairn (DUP)
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My Lords, I speak in support of Amendments 28, 29 and 36 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Morrow and Lord Empey, but I will first deal with Amendment 25 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie.

I understand where the noble Baroness is coming from with this amendment, which we also discussed in Committee. Part of the reason for it is to allow decisions to be made if there is no Northern Ireland Executive in place, but from my reading of it—I stand to be corrected—if it were to be agreed, these powers to act after 30 days would apply whether there were a Northern Ireland Executive or not. In other words, even if the Assembly and the Executive are in place but a period of 30 days elapses between the trigger point and a decision being made, it is open to the Secretary of State to intervene. That seems a quite draconian suggestion. I have been in the Northern Ireland Executive, like the noble Baroness and others, and many decisions take longer than 30 days, for all sorts of good reasons and considerations of all sorts of circumstances. It seems an amazing proposition that the Secretary of State would be compelled to act if the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister could not agree something within 30 days. I can think of nothing more designed to undermine the principle of devolution than that. From my reading of the amendment, it clearly would apply not just to the circumstances where there was no Executive but even if the Executive were in place.

The other thing I point out is that the amendment would apply only to the appointment of the Irish language commissioner, so there is no compulsion for the Secretary of State to act if there is a failure to appoint the Ulster Scots/Ulster-British commissioner. It seems one-sided in that approach. Nor indeed would it apply to appointments relating to the office of identity and cultural expression. It seems to be very much overstepping the mark. It would not fulfil the purposes it purports to and would create a one-sided approach in relation to appointments. For those reasons, I trust that the Government will maintain their position from Committee and not support the amendment.

Amendments 28, 29 and 36 in the names of my noble friend Lord Morrow and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, would remove the override powers from the Bill. In his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, made the very important point that the Bill is designed to stick as closely as possible to the NDNA agreement. That is what we are about. On a number of occasions, the Minister cited in support of his arguments in knocking down some amendments that we must reflect the NDNA agreement and that those provisions were not in it. It is certainly not in the NDNA agreement that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would be given override powers, as the Minister admitted in Committee.

If it had been suggested that this would be part of the agreement, I do not think there would have been an agreement. If we had set up a series of checks and balances, and requirements for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to agree, and then said, “If they can’t agree, don’t agree, or it appears to the Secretary of State to be appropriate then he can intervene and take on all the powers of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in this respect”, which is a devolved matter, there would not have been an agreement. It so undermines the NDNA agreement and devolution itself that I find it hard to see how the Minister can justify it. He cannot do so on the basis that it is a faithful replication of the agreement, or on the grounds that it faithfully adheres to the devolution arrangements throughout the United Kingdom. It is clearly in breach of the Sewel convention and it acts as a clear disincentive to find agreement.

This is one of the many areas where the First and Deputy First Minister—and, indeed, the Executive—are required to reach agreement without the fallback that if they do not then the Secretary of State will intervene. That forces agreement to be made in the vast bulk of cases. If it is clear to some people that the Secretary of State will intervene if they simply dig in their heels and do not agree, then that is likely what will happen. I think this is a very misconceived part of the Bill. I understand that the argument may well be that it is a difficult area and we need contingency powers, as the Minister set out in Committee, but, again, contingency powers to avoid this problem arising were not part of the NDNA.

I come back to the basic principle. This Bill is about implementing that agreement. We are all agreed on that. These clauses were not part of the agreement. They are unilateral actions on the part of the Government to reserve unto themselves powers to override the Executive. We have seen this in a number of areas recently and I have raised with the Secretary of State and with others within government that we are going down a very dangerous path with this selective overriding of the devolved settlement. We have seen it in relation to the abortion issue, in relation to this issue and in relation to the protocol issue, where the voting mechanism of the Assembly, which is meant to be cross-community and cross-party agreement—there has to be a majority of unionists, nationalists and an overall majority—has been set aside arbitrarily.

Where does this end? What criteria do the Government apply for where they respect devolution and where they set it aside? Can the Minister tell us what are the overall considerations as to when powers are taken by the Secretary of State to override devolution, the Belfast agreement or the NDNA agreement? Is it on a case-by-case basis? What is it? I think it raises very serious questions.

I hope that when this matter is dealt with in the other place, the Government will reconsider this approach because, as I say, it is not a faithful replication of the NDNA agreement.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I must say that the final debate of this evening has been fascinating. There are times where I am glad I am not the Minister, and this is one of them. There are quite convincing and interesting arguments on both sides. I remember that the late Lord Cledwyn Hughes, when he chaired the Parliamentary Labour Party, would start his deliberation as chairman by saying: “There are pros and cons for and there are pros and cons against.” That is the case here.

It is about protection. My noble friends Lady Ritchie and Lady Goudie were talking about protecting this legislation, protecting the agreement that has produced the legislation so that something which in the past, as we all know, brought down the Assembly for three years ought not to happen again. Of course, we have to ensure that the legislation is balanced for both nationalists and unionists and, indeed, other members of the community in Northern Ireland. I quite understand the need for reassurance but then there is the other protection: the protection for devolution. It would be much easier, by the way, if the Assembly and the Executive were functioning because the argument would be much more effective but, of course, they are not and that is one of the problems. Because there is no real, effective Assembly or Government in Northern Ireland, it is very difficult to ensure that there is certainty about this legislation when they are not there. I can understand that too.

As I said in Committee, when I was the Secretary of State I felt deeply uncomfortable about making decisions for people in Northern Ireland when I was a Member for a Welsh valley constituency. It was for the people of Northern Ireland to decide what they had to do. On schools, education, language, culture or whatever it might be, it is for those people in Northern Ireland who were elected by the people of Northern Ireland to make the decisions. They have elected them and, frankly, it is about time they got into government. I understand all the issues that underlie why that is not happening.

Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL] Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Northern Ireland Office

Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Excerpts
Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, as we come to the end of the passage of the Bill through your Lordships’ House, I want to place on record my gratitude to all noble Lords who have participated in our debates upon it. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, who speaks with great wisdom as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister who helped negotiate the Belfast agreement in 1998, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for their support for the Bill and their constructive and pragmatic engagement during its passage.

I thank all noble Lords from Northern Ireland for their detailed and insightful contributions. While some of them might not like every aspect of the Bill, and I am sure that their colleagues in the other place will continue to push the Government in a number of areas, I appreciate the collaborative and open manner with which they have engaged with me and put forward their arguments.

It will come as no surprise to many that I found the most enjoyable aspect of the Bill’s passage the debate on the Castlereagh Foundation, the establishment of which the Bill will enable. It provided us with an opportunity in Committee and on Report to discuss the great contribution that Viscount Castlereagh made to Irish, British and European history, not least as the architect of the Act of Union and a key figure in defeating the Bonapartist tyranny in the early part of the 19th century. In doing so, we have benefited immensely from the expert historical knowledge and wisdom of my noble friend Lord Lexden, who I see in his place and to whom I am especially grateful and have been ever since he took the bold decision to employ me 35 years ago.

Finally, I place on record my thanks to my noble friend Lord Younger, my officials from the Northern Ireland Office, the Whips’ Office and all those involved in the Bill’s drafting for their hard work and support. The aim of the legislation is to implement important commitments in New Decade, New Approach, which, noble Lords will recall, led to the restoration of devolved government in January 2020. In remaining faithful to New Decade, New Approach, I am pleased that the Government were able to table amendments to the Bill and to make commitments in response to the debates we had.

As a result, I believe that the Bill is in a better state thanks to your Lordships’ scrutiny. Once again, this demonstrates the value of your Lordships’ House in examining legislation in detail. It is now over to the other place and, I sincerely hope, to a reconstituted Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, to continue and complete the work we have started in your Lordships’ House.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I echo the view of the Minister in the sense that the debates have been very good, informative and useful. They have also been informed from the point of view of many contributions from Members of your Lordships’ House from Northern Ireland, which enhanced the quality of the debate considerably. I thank the Minister for the very civilised way he handled this Bill at Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, and all Members of your Lordships’ House who took part.

The Minister rightly says that the Bill is based on New Decade, New Approach, which was an all-party agreement some years ago in Northern Ireland, and the Bill faithfully sticks to that agreement. There have been some improvements and, again, I am so glad that the Minister and the Government were able to accept those changes; for example, to how the Secretary of State’s step-in powers would be dealt with by Parliament. There were also changes, such as the Castlereagh Foundation, which originally was not in the Bill, and in the title of the commissioner for Ulster Scots to add the Ulster-British tradition. These came about because we had a good debate, and because these were sensible things to do.

I wish the Bill well. It is founded on the principles of the Good Friday agreement of equality, of ensuring that people have respect for each other, and of parity of esteem—which came up many times in debate. There is still an opportunity in the House of Commons for further changes to be made, so long as they are in step with the agreements made in Belfast. I wish it well on its legislative journey.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I too thank the Minister and his Bill team for the constructive and positive way in which they have engaged with noble Lords on the Bill. I also thank my colleague Elizabeth Plummer in the Lib Dem Whips’ Office for her constant support and knowledge as somebody from Northern Ireland.

The Minister sets an extremely positive example—perhaps the gold standard—with his willingness to listen and make changes, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has said. It would be deeply welcome if a similarly constructive and listening approach were to be used for the two other Bills that have not yet reached your Lordships’ House: the legacy Bill and the Northern Ireland protocol Bill. It is unlikely, perhaps, but one can live in hope.

I have two final brief points, if I may. I believe that everyone, including the Minister, has agreed at various stages of the Bill that it would have been much preferred if the Northern Ireland Assembly had been dealing with this Bill. The Northern Ireland Assembly, with all its relevant experience and expertise in being much closer than many of us are here, would have been much better placed to deal with this legislation.

During the slightly unusual and turbulent period that we are going through, I none the less hope that the new Northern Ireland Secretary will allow the Minister to use his many years of experience to leave no stone unturned in helping to bring back a functioning Executive and Assembly as soon as possible. It is in no one’s interest, least of all the people of Northern Ireland, for this current stalemate to continue.