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

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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First, I welcome many of the provisions in the Bill. As the previous speaker, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), knows well, we had many long hours in the three-year hiatus of the Northern Ireland Assembly discussing a lot of this stuff, but it is deeply depressing that 23 years after the Good Friday agreement we are meeting today to find ways to stop political parties pulling the whole show apart.

The political context is that, a few years ago, Sinn Féin pulled the Assembly down for three full years—waiting lists got longer, schools began to crumble, the economy was not dealt with. Even as we stand here today, the DUP is threatening to bring down the very edifice of government in Northern Ireland. If it does not gets its way, it will pull down the Assembly. It has already withdrawn from a key tenet of the Good Friday agreement, which is north-south co-operation. What does that say to the people out there who are languishing on waiting lists? Is it that the DUP’s little niche issues are more important than dealing with the day-to-day, bread-and-butter problems that people face? It is a terrible indictment of our politics that we are even here discussing this.

I will speak to some of the amendments, in particular those on how the First and Deputy First Ministers are elected and appointed, what those offices do and what they are called. My view is that they have always been joint offices: the Deputy First Minister cannot send a letter without the First Minister saying it is okay; the First Minister cannot answer a question without the Deputy First Minister saying it is okay; and many decisions cannot be made without agreement between the two. Decisions are very infrequently made, it seems, because they do not seem to agree on an awful lot.

What is really concerning, all these years after the Good Friday agreement, is that as of today, none of the Unionist parties has told us what they would do if a nationalist gets enough votes to occupy the First Minister’s position. They are refusing to tell us whether they would even serve in that Government. Well, it is not 1968 anymore, and nationalists will no longer be treated as second-class citizens. People have marched in the streets and been beaten off the streets so that our votes could count just as much as anyone else’s. If Unionist politicians want to come along and lecture anybody about the sustainability of institutions and working together, they must seriously consider their answer the next time they are asked whether they would serve as Deputy First Minister if a nationalist becomes First Minister.

In reality—we have seen this before with the Justice Minister—because of a cosy agreement between a big nationalist party and the DUP, a nationalist is still not allowed to serve in the Department of Justice. In fact it is a joint office, which is why new clause 3 has been tabled, and it is about time we looked at that reality. From listening to some of the big radio shows in Northern Ireland and watching the television news, it is clear that over the next six months in the run-up to this election—if we are allowed to have an election—we will be faced with constant arguing: “Who will be First Minister and who will be Deputy First Minister? You have to come out to vote to stop these people becoming First Minister.” Even though we have had that for 20 years, the DUP still go into government with them. DUP Members used to say, “We can’t have Martin McGuinness as First Minister. He was a terrorist”, but then they went into government with him, occupied that very same office, and worked with him every day.

Let us, please, get rid of the constant division and debate about who is First Minister and who is Deputy First Minister. I sense we will not get there today, but there is an opportunity, which I ask the Government to consider, to look at new clause 3 and think seriously about how we resolve this issue. The job of the British and Irish Governments in our peace process is to see problems before they arise, and a blind man on a galloping horse can see what is coming round the corner if we do not resolve this issue now.

It suits the DUP and Sinn Féin to have constant debate about what they call each other, because then we are not dealing with the real issues. Our health service is on the point of collapse, 100 times more people are on out-patient waiting lists in Northern Ireland than they are in England, 29% of our children are living in poverty, but there is still no antipoverty strategy because they could not agree it. My constituency has the highest level of unemployment and economic inactivity anywhere across these islands, and we still do not have the 10,000 students on the Magee university campus who were promised and negotiated by me and the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during those NDNA discussions.

The legacy of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s 15 years in government has been failure, failure and more failure, and they want this argument. Everybody knows that. The Government know it, we know it, the Irish Government know it, and everybody in the House knows it: they want this argument so that they can get away in the smoke for not actually delivering for people. I implore the Government to think seriously about the best way to address this issue. There are a number of good ideas in the new clause, and the best way would be to get rid of the nonsense and pretence that the First Minister is more important than the Deputy First Minister. They are joint First Ministers, so let us begin properly to call them that.

In conclusion, it is a bit rich for the Government to be telling anybody about sustainability in Northern Ireland, when everything they do in Northern Ireland undermines sustainability and the stability of our institutions. That includes how they dealt with the European Union and the DUP, and what they told them about the protocol—apparently there was never going to be a border anywhere. Well, there is one now, and if we were more honest with people we would be in a much better situation.

The NDNA agreement also mentioned 90 days for implementing legacy legislation, but where has that gone? The five parties in Northern Ireland, and every victims’ group, opposes the Government’s proposals on legacy, yet they seem determined to push that forward. We are still waiting—perhaps today is the opportunity—for the Government to tell us when Irish language and culture legislation will be brought to the House, as agreed at NDNA. There is an opportunity to stop the crisis that we are looking at down the barrel—it is clear it is coming—and for the Government to step in and do something, before we end up with another three years of collapse, when more people will be languishing on waiting lists.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con)
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Let me echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said about the need for speed to get this legislation through, which I urge on my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and hopefully on business managers in the other place. This Bill has dawdled for too long. I agree very much with the vast majority of what the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) had to say, and I shall come back to that point in a moment. [Interruption.] It is not “surprise, surprise”, and I say to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) that when somebody speaks sense, one should usually notice and acknowledge it.

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Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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The hon. Gentleman is making a sensible point about the extension of a crisis period. We currently have a situation where a crisis could last for days, and we are now potentially extending that by up to six months. Irrespective of what side of the debate they are on, I ask Members across the House to contemplate whether they would tolerate in their part of the United Kingdom a crisis in statute that is allowed to perpetuate itself for up to six months before it ultimately comes to the buffer zone, or to the point at which it has to be delivered. That point needs to be considered by all hon. Members when they vote on this measure.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, who serves with me on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Thank heavens this is not being dealt with as emergency legislation and rushed through in a 12-hour sitting, but once again it speaks of dealing with Northern Ireland as something other, or as something different, and with a set of circumstances and rules that none of us would find tolerable in England and my constituency of North Dorset, or in Wales or Scotland. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that we should all be conscious of.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood
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I remember going through these negotiations with some of the people who are now in the Chamber. In reality—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree with this—it was DUP Members who pushed hardest for long periods to try to resolve some of these issues. They were responding to the issue that Sinn Féin had collapsed the institutions last time around. Of course, this time they are the ones threatening to do that, but that was largely the DUP position, and it is strange to hear the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) now opposing it.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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All I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that I was not privy to those discussions, but we are where we are. We must realise that things have clearly moved on. The operation and reform of the protocol is sitting here like an elephant in the Chamber, but it speaks to my point that the workable delivery of devolution should not be used as a plaything for other issues.

That takes me to the point that the hon. Member for North Down made about democracy. We cannot have a functioning democracy in these islands that is effectively based on the Henry Ford model of selling a car. Henry Ford used to say, “You can have any colour as long as it’s black.” We cannot say, “You can have as many elections as you like as long as I turn out as the winner. If I don’t—if the public have spoken and I haven’t been successful—I won’t accept the result. I will tear the edifice down,” in some sort of democratic political toddler’s temper tantrum. That is not how we do it. Democracy only works when all of us who win take up the weight of winning with responsibility and those who lose accept that they have lost and somebody else has won. If people do not abide by that simple equation, that is not democracy, and that should cause us all considerable concern.

My final point, echoing what the hon. Member for North Down said, is that in the system that we have for sorting these things out, the language that is used—“Unionist”, “nationalist” and “other”—may be past its sell-by date. It hard-bakes into the language and the systems a previous age. It does not reflect Northern Ireland as it is today. This is not the time for it, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that at some point in the not-too-distant future, serious, considered, sober thought needs to be given to how these issues are addressed in order to present Northern Ireland to the rest of the world, and to the rest of the United Kingdom, as it is today and not as it was 20 years ago, or 40 or 50 years ago. We need a contemporary review of that in order to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

My cri de coeur is for all parties to understand that devolution, and its delivery of public service and improvement of life for those who live in Northern Ireland, is not something to be taken lightly. It is not a plaything to be kicked around for cheap party political points.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is always a pleasure to speak on any issue in this House, but particularly on issues to do with Northern Ireland. I welcome the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), to his new role and wish him well. He rightly came to see the No. 1 constituency in Northern Ireland, Strangford, before he had seen anywhere else. We are very pleased to have had the opportunity to have him there, and we wish him well in his role.

As always, the debate has been clear, and my party’s reasoning has been clearer. I am not enamoured with the form of government in Northern Ireland, and I do not believe that it can or does work, as has been demonstrated very clearly over the last couple of years. I absolutely believe in the right of this place to govern and legislate. However, as my colleagues have said, this is a matter that should be debated in the appropriate forum and not tagged on to this Bill. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee at Stormont is the mechanism to do that.

It grieves me that decisions were made in this place when they should have been made through the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I want to put that on the record. That leads me to an issue that I feel must be highlighted again: this Bill aims to secure a working Assembly with the best mechanism possible, yet it seems that this House interferes at will when public opinion calls for it. That must come to an end. It is time that this place gave the Northern Ireland Assembly the authority to make decisions.

During covid, despite discussion of an abortion Bill, this Government determined that they would bring in abortion in Northern Ireland in the most open way not just in the UK but in all of Europe. Along with colleagues, I strongly resented that, and I still resent it. We now face this Government acting on the NDNA deal, but only when it comes to the Irish language. With great respect to the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), for me this issue is as clear as a bell. The rest of the important provisions, such as health and education, on which there were goals and aims, have been left to trickle through, yet the Irish language is to be given priority by this place.

As my party’s health spokesperson, it concerns me greatly that across Northern Ireland, in a post-covid world, the waiting time for an urgent hip replacement is upwards of five years, for cataract surgery it is upwards of four years, and breast reconstruction for breast cancer survivors is years down the line, with no date whatsoever. I have talked to some of my constituents back home who are fluent and interested Irish language speakers, and they tell me that they want to see priority given to issues such as health and education, to ensure that they are addressed first. I am not sure that the people of the Province believe that the Government should step in and fund these measures.

There are children out of education. There are many schools in my area that are awaiting refurbishment or rebuilding, and that cannot get the support they need in the form of classroom assistants. There is a big issue, too, with assessment for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. We get referrals every day of the week for those things. There is a generation of children who have had the option to learn music stripped from them, as budget slashing has meant a choice between culture or a teacher.

Those are real issues that impact every one of my constituents, whether they are Unionist or nationalist, whether they are in favour of the Irish language or against it. Those are the issues that people tell me clearly that they want to see addressed. I resent that priority has been given to one aspect of the NDNA over the life-changing aspects, and I urge the Minister to allow the Assembly to carry out its duties according to priority and not political machinations.

I understand the need to support the measures before us today, but I must put on the record my concerns about the prioritisation of some of the spending that the Government have looked towards. Clearly, we should be spending more on policing, because we need more police officers on the streets across Northern Ireland. We have a dearth of them at the moment. The training college is turning out as many as it can as quickly as it can, but the places of those who retire are still not being filled. Improvements need to be made in health, education and policing, and that is where I would like to see the focus.

At the same time, I urge the Government to do the right thing and allow the Assembly to prioritise need over wish and people over politics, and to make our own determination on Northern Ireland issues. I believe in devolution; I always have. I want the devolution that we have in Northern Ireland to achieve something. History has shown that direct rule is not beneficial for the people of the Province. I will therefore support the Bill, hoping against hope that Lord Frost will achieve what he sets out to achieve and ensure that Northern Ireland stops being a third country to the UK and is accepted as an integral part of it.

The next step will be asking the Government not to treat the Assembly as a local council with minor responsibilities, but to allow it to take tough decisions in a democratic manner. I believe that is the foundation of the Bill, and that is why I will support it, but I say to the Minister—I hope that he will respond—that there are priorities that need to be addressed first. I think we all realise that, and my constituents tell me that. Health, education, the economy and policing are where spending should be prioritised—not the Irish language.

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Brandon Lewis Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Brandon Lewis)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

In doing so, I acknowledge the hard work that has got us to this point. I pay tribute to former Secretaries of State for their role in supporting institutions in Northern Ireland during the most recent collapse. As this is the first time I have been at the Dispatch Box since the sad news, I pay particular tribute to James Brokenshire. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Absolutely; I appreciate the comments from across the House. Both as a friend I have known for just over two decades, and in his role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he showed truly admirable dedication to the people he represented, to colleagues and to friends, and dedication and commitment to the people of Northern Ireland.

I also want to thank hon. Members from all political parties who participated in debating the merits of the Bill. In particular, I thank the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for their diligent scrutiny efforts and broad support for the measures set out in this Bill, and for their comments today.

I also express my thanks to colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Office of the Speaker of the Assembly, and to those who represent Northern Ireland constituencies in this House, all of whom have contributed to and been part of the work that has led to today, and the negotiations on New Decade, New Approach.

I acknowledge the hard-working civil servants, here in Whitehall and in Belfast. Not only did they support the successful negotiation of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, but they have since helped the progress of the Bill and continually help to deliver on the fundamental commitments made by this Government within that deal—including, I have no doubt, some very late nights supporting my colleague and right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who would have put in those hours of effort in the lead-up to the final agreement of this Bill. I say a huge thank you to everyone who has been involved.

I reaffirm our view that our Union is strongest when its institutions work well, work together and deliver real change on the issues that matter, as colleagues have mentioned today. For Northern Ireland, that means properly functioning institutions, both in Stormont and Westminster, that allow Stormont to focus on the core issues that, as colleagues across parties have said today, must be focused on. To have one third of the population on a waiting list is not good enough for the Northern Ireland health service. Some 23 years since the Good Friday agreement, only to have approximately 7% of the population benefiting from integrated education is not good enough for the people of Northern Ireland, and we must move further on that together.

The Bill is a focused Bill. It will deliver necessary and well overdue reforms to strengthen the sustainability of institutions in Northern Ireland, update the ministerial code of conduct and reform the petition-of-concern mechanism. These measures, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has outlined, were all agreed by the main political parties in Northern Ireland when the Executive were restored, and it would be remiss of us to begin to tweak and change the details here in Westminster without further agreement from the parties. I am confident that those in the Executive and the Assembly will continue to work in the same good faith in which the measures were negotiated, as we in Parliament will; I will come back in a few moments to comments made on that point.

For those reasons, the House should support the Bill’s Third Reading. UK Governments of all colours and types have worked to maintain peace and encourage political stability in Northern Ireland over the decades. I am grateful to the Opposition for welcoming the Bill and the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

The Government accept, however, that this is just one piece of the jigsaw. The positive difference that a restored Executive have made to the people of Northern Ireland is clear to see, despite the great challenges that we have all had as a result of covid-19—particularly as the Executive were restored just days before the covid pressure came upon us all. The past 18 months have demonstrated that a power-sharing Executive can work together under the hardest of circumstances to find compromise and act in the shared interests of all communities in Northern Ireland. The Bill can only empower their capability in that respect.

The Government have listened to and are grateful for all contributions made by Members of this House. I appreciate that it is frustrating for some Members that we have been unable to accept non-Government amendments, despite the great intentions behind them, some of which have been outlined today. That is because many go beyond what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach, although I note the comment from the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) that we are now two years on and that there are some things in New Decade, New Approach that, as time moves on and we learn more, we need to look at.

But my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon is right: we need to focus on delivering what was agreed. As co-guarantors of New Decade, New Approach, we have a duty to ensure that, for all people in Northern Ireland, the measures are delivered as they were agreed upon by the main parties.

Members of this Chamber have expressed eagerness for the delivery of further commitments made under the New Decade, New Approach agreement and will be glad to hear that we have made good progress. For example, we have appointed the Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner; introduced legislation to further enshrine the armed forces covenant in law; published reports on the use of the petition-of-concern mechanism in the Assembly; contributed to the creation of a new Northern Ireland graduate entry medical school in Derry/Londonderry, which I agree we want to see developed further; and supplemented the new deal for Northern Ireland’s £400 million fund to promote Northern Ireland as a cyber security hub, to name just a few things.

There is more to come. We have made commitments to ensure that areas that were committed to be delivered within the mandate for Stormont will be delivered; a cultural package is part of that, and we will do that. We are proud of the progress made thus far. The UK Government are committed to ensuring that New Decade, New Approach is delivered in full. I reassure hon. Members that further progress will be made in due course.

Both for the Executive and for us, covid has meant decisions being made, and pressure being put on legislative time, on decisions and on work done—we all understand that. As we move out of covid, we want to move quickly and get things done, and I hope that the Executive will be doing the same.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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May I go back to the cultural package? I think the House’s understanding is very clear as to how my right hon. Friend envisages dealing with the matter. However, is he able to say a little more, not so much about what it might be called as about when we might actually see it, if indeed this place needs to see it—or is it his expectation that Stormont will deliver it?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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My hon. Friend the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee highlights an important point. It is still technically possible for the Executive to start a procedure that would allow the package to be delivered within the mandate, which has always been the intent, the focus and the desire for those involved in New Decade, New Approach. As I have said, we are very clear that, if it becomes clear that the Executive are unable to do that, or are not moving it forward, we will bring forward legislation to deliver the cultural package as set out in NDNA—no more, but no less. We will do that; I will not go further than that at the moment.

The purpose of the Bill is to implement what was agreed by all parties in the New Decade, New Approach deal. During the passage of the Bill, including this afternoon, there has been sensible, interesting and well-argued debate on the wider institutions and options in Northern Ireland. I look forward to seeing discussions continue among the Northern Ireland parties and to engaging on these matters with them and with colleagues here, as well as to following discussions in the other place, as the hon. Member for North Down rightly outlined.

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Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart
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The hon. Gentleman will know that the protocol is damaging everyone within Northern Ireland, both economically and constitutionally, and I would ask him to go and speak to the businesses that are being impacted on a daily basis by the protocol. It certainly undermines the delicate balances of the agreement.

I have listened to the remarks from the hon. Members for North Down (Stephen Farry) and for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), and I am sure that I am not alone in finding it somewhat ironic that those parties that hold the Belfast agreement as some form of religious text have sought so hard to change some of its underpinning elements. We see this in the attempts to change the appointment of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and to change community designation, and in the quest to reform the petition of concern mechanisms, all of which were created and championed by those who now wish to do away with the old and bring in the new for their own political advantage. We in Northern Ireland are well used to the hypocrisy and double standards of the Alliance party and the SDLP, which are there for all to see in their amendments today.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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The hon. Lady makes a valid point about the views of business being heard during this further stage of negotiation and consultation with regard to the protocol. She is right on that, but I am failing to understand why tearing down Stormont and removing the voices of elected local representatives to make their case would help those businesses.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart
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The hon. Member will know that we have not done that. We want this Government to act on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. Lord Frost and his colleagues have heard clearly about the need to act and the damage that this is doing economically and constitutionally, and the hon. Member would do well to listen to the people of Northern Ireland and not just take it for granted that he is aware of their views.

I reiterate that if this Government continue to placate Sinn Féin’s ransom demands by legislating in this place to satisfy them, devolution will fail. Furthermore, if the provisions of the Belfast agreement around cross-community consent and our constitutional position continue to be set aside in the context of the future relationship between the UK and the EU pertaining to Northern Ireland, devolution will fail. Regardless of this Bill, the next few weeks will test the Government on their commitment to stable devolution in Northern Ireland.