All 3 Richard Thomson contributions to the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022

Read Bill Ministerial Extracts

Tue 26th Oct 2021
Mon 7th Feb 2022
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill
Commons Chamber

Consideration of Lords amendments & Consideration of Lords amendments

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

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Northern Ireland Office

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

Richard Thomson Excerpts
2nd reading
Tuesday 22nd June 2021

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

Let me begin by offering my congratulations and those of my party to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his elevation to be leader of the Democratic Unionist party.

This is a very important Bill in the sense that it is required to deliver on aspects of the New Decade, New Approach commitments. There are parts of that agreement that can and, I would argue, should be delivered by the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly themselves. I am sure that other speakers will begin to go over that ground in more detail, but I do not intend to do so myself. I will seek to confine my remarks to the measures in the Bill that can only be implemented by this place.

Before I do, I would like to offer a perspective from Scotland. There has been much comment about devolution. The Chair of the Select Committee said that devolution is neither a pick and mix nor a picnic. The Prime Minister, who clearly regards himself as a success, has notoriously described devolution as a failure. I think that most people in Scotland, and indeed further afield, would feel that the Prime Minister has got these things the wrong way round altogether.

Nevertheless, as with all Governments, there have been times when devolved Administrations, including the Governments in Scotland, of whatever political stripe, have acquitted themselves well and times when they have not—times when people have been left wondering why some things were not being done or, in some cases, why they were being done at all. There have been occasions when Parliaments have failed to pass budgets or when Governments have unexpectedly found themselves in a minority on an issue, sometimes within the Parliament and sometimes outside it. Occasionally, in the early days of devolution, there were also crises on education policy, aspects of social policy and even matters of personality and who held office, which left the institution somewhat battered and exposed in the harsh glare of the media and, at times, in its public standing. While I do not pretend that there is any scale of comparability, I would hope, viewing the situation from Scotland, that we can look at the progress that is being made in Northern Ireland with some kind of insight into the politics that goes on.

Over that time, there were strong opinions, deeply felt and sometimes trenchantly expressed, within, between and beyond political parties, some of which, as I say, led people to question the value of the institutions themselves. However, across the piece, politicians did what they had to do, which was not to ignore differences or try to come together on a false consensus, but instead to talk, to listen, to understand, to take responsibility and ultimately to move forward and start finding the much-vaunted Scottish solutions to Scottish problems instead of always looking to this place to have them sorted out for us by Governments who, very often, we did not elect. It is important that politics continues, and sometimes in order for politics to continue, all that is required is to give politicians the political space they need to be able to have the discussions they need to have with colleagues, to negotiate inside and outside the parties and between the parties, and sometimes even to reflect more broadly on whether public opinion on some issues is really where it has always been assumed to be. Who takes the decisions, and where and why, is obviously hugely important, but it is still important that the decisions that need to be taken are taken.

It is telling that in the opening of the “New Decade, New Approach” document, so much space was taken up with bread-and-butter issues such as resolving the long-standing issues around the delivery of healthcare and healthcare entitlements, around reforms to the education system and around the need to press ahead with capital expenditure and infrastructure, all of which had backed up during the absence of self-government. So, while I hope I do not underestimate for a single moment the sensitivities involved in a climate of power sharing, or the importance of being in a position to match words with deeds, I believe that the Bill will enhance the transparency and accountability of the institutions and that it is significant for what it sets out to do.

Politics may abhor a vacuum, but there is no question but that trying to bring matters to a head too quickly in the face of short and sometimes artificial and meaningless deadlines can lead to problems all of their own. For that reason, I believe that allowing an extended period, as the Bill seeks to do, for the appointment of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, whether in the event of their ceasing to hold office or in the aftermath of an election, is an important step. Similarly, allowing Ministers to remain in office after an election to allow for some limited but necessary political direction to be provided over that period is an important mechanism for ensuring continued normalcy, not only to ensure the continuity of government but to assist the political process in the formation of new Governments. Similarly, while the petition of concern process has been an important consociational mechanism, the time is surely right to begin to narrow the scope of its potential usage while broadening the support required in order for it to be brought to bear. Also, I believe that an updating of the code of conduct for Ministers to enshrine the Nolan principles will be opportune.

As I have said, this is an important Bill. The people of Northern Ireland deserve stability and, with it, the ability to have decisions taken on their behalf by the Assembly that they elect and by the Executive who are there to govern on their behalf, and so long as these proposals enjoy the broad support of the people of Northern Ireland and the parties of Northern Ireland, they will have our support too.

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

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Northern Ireland Office

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

Richard Thomson Excerpts
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I welcome the Minister to his position, and look forward to working with him. Let me also add my thanks to all who have contributed to the Bill’s passage. Securing a prosperous, peaceful and well-governed Northern Ireland is obviously in the interests of everyone there, but it is also hugely in the interests of everyone throughout these islands, and I believe that the Bill contributes to that in its own small way.

I will try to keep my remarks comparatively brief. Let me say first that democratic politics, wherever it takes place, needs its participants and practitioners to have space in which to talk, discuss, reflect and consult, and, above all, freedom to take the risks involved in finding consensus, acknowledging common ground, and doing the heavy lifting of finding agreement. While deadlines and ultimatums obviously have their place in politics, I think the wider community is much better served when we see that heavy lifting going on, and the better, more secure and sustainable outcomes to which it leads. However, it is not just politics in the abstract that needs space; it is also the business of government.

Any decision taken through the institutions of Northern Ireland is almost certain to be better than any decision that can ever be taken on behalf of Northern Ireland in this place, simply because it will be rooted in those democratic institutions and moulded to the contours of public opinion through the politicians whom we elect, and because it makes local decision makers in Northern Ireland more accountable for the choices they have been elected to make; and the politics is all the more transparent and healthy for it. That is what happens when we give the politics the space in which to work.

To the extent that today’s proceedings help to remove some of the time pressures caused by the need to fill ministerial positions or to form an Administration, we support the Bill. Obviously having Ministers in office without their positions being confirmed by a current electoral mandate is not ideal, but it does provide continuity in caretaker form, and efficient governance in the absence of an Executive when it comes to dealing with everyday matters. I believe that the Bill has the potential to enhance transparency, accountability and at least the opportunities for good governance, and on that basis it has our support.

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

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Northern Ireland Office

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

Richard Thomson Excerpts
Members should take a look at the charities, the young people and the vulnerable citizens who spoke out over the weekend, reacting to last week’s events. Have they been through two years of pandemic only to find that some politicians have decided to desert them in their hour of need? Yet again, the majority who want to get on with day-to-day life and day-to-day business are held hostage by the parallel universe of elements of the Northern Ireland political world. I urge the Government to make a full statement to this House on Stormont and to reassert immediately their commitment and conviction on power sharing and on restoring it in full forthwith.
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

I note the Minister’s opening remarks on the present situation. I have previously made my own views and those of my party pretty clear on the manner of the UK’s departure from the European Union and the negative consequences that have flowed, and I do not intend to detain the House by repeating them here. Time is short and there are voices that need to be heard in this debate far more than mine.

The SNP has supported this legislation throughout its passage, because we believe it improves transparency and accountability in governance in Northern Ireland. It also gives the time and, more importantly perhaps, the space for politics to do what it needs to do in terms of cross-community discussions on the way forward for politics in Northern Ireland.

We are content to support the Lords amendments, and we believe they can be positive. We are happy to support them on that basis.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), in a fantastic speech, spoke about the importance of trust in all this. He is absolutely right, and my right hon. Friend the Minister will concur that the overarching objective has to be to rebuild trust between the parties as quickly as possible.

I agree with every word my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said. The rule of law is so important. Honouring the rule of law and our international obligations should be the hallmark of any Tory Government—of any Government in this country, I should say, but particularly one of our side. To have that thrown into question when we have willingly signed up to agreements, understanding them perfectly, as the noble Lord Frost confirmed to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee some months ago, and to seek to resile from that now, pretending we did not quite understand what it meant or that we did not think that people would hold us to what we signed up to, shows so much brass neck as to be unspeakable.

I welcome the Lords amendments and their necessity. Thankfully, the Government did not go down the road of double jobbing. Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to create a joint First Minister. As we all know, in essence the positions are joint—neither the left hand nor the right hand can do anything without the other saying yes or no—and that might be a way to move these things forward.

Yet again, we find ourselves in a situation in which self-service rather than public service has trumped all decisions. What happened last week was, in my judgment, an abdication of responsibility. Rage against the protocol if you will—tear your hair out and rend your clothes about the protocol; go on marches; do what the hell you like—but do not abandon the communities of Northern Ireland.