All 5 contributions to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2024

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Wed 24th Jan 2024
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage & Report stage & 3rd reading
Thu 25th Jan 2024
Royal Assent
Lords Chamber

Royal Assent & Royal Assent

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

1st reading
Wednesday 24th January 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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First Reading
15:48
The Bill was brought from the Commons and read a first time.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

2nd reading
Wednesday 24th January 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Second Reading
16:33
Moved by
Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Caine Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Caine) (Con)
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My Lords, before I move to the Bill, this is the first opportunity I have had at the Dispatch Box to welcome my noble friend Lord Empey back to his place and to pass on formally my commiserations on the loss that he suffered at the end of last year. I also wish the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, a speedy recovery from the bout of Covid from which she is currently suffering.

As many in this House will be aware, I am an unashamed and unapologetic unionist who believes that the best future for Northern Ireland lies within a strong and prosperous United Kingdom. Over my 35 years of involvement in the affairs of Northern Ireland, defending, protecting and strengthening the union has been at the forefront of everything I have sought to do, while always recognising the legitimate interests and aspirations of nationalism. That, of course, will never change. It was for these reasons—to raise up a new Northern Ireland that works for the whole community and to strengthen the union in so doing—that I supported the agreement reached on 10 April 1998. That agreement has been the bedrock of all the progress we have seen over the past 26 years. The commitment of His Majesty’s Government to the agreement, including devolution and power sharing, remains unwavering.

The focus of this Government has always been on facilitating the return of the devolved institutions and upholding the Belfast agreement in all its parts. We want to see locally elected representatives taking local decisions, accountable through the Assembly to the people they serve. That is what this short Bill is intended to help achieve.

This House is well known for, and rightly prides itself on, its ability to scrutinise line by line detailed, complex and lengthy legislation. This Bill does not fit into any of those categories: it has a sole purpose and one main clause. The legislation will retrospectively extend the Executive formation period set out in the 2022 Act from 18 January to 8 February this year. This short extension will create the legal means to enable the Northern Ireland Assembly to sit and re-establish the Executive, which, as the law stands, expired on 18 January.

Importantly, a restored Executive will have access to the significant financial package announced by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland shortly before Christmas, worth around £3.3 billion, to secure and transform Northern Ireland’s public services. Ministers will be empowered immediately to begin working to address the needs of local people and realise Northern Ireland’s potential. Our firm desire is that this Bill will help to deliver that outcome and support the return of devolved government to the people of Northern Ireland, which, in my view, is the soundest and surest foundation for the future of the union.

On that note, I hope that, for the very last time, I commend a Bill of this nature to the House.

16:36
Lord Dodds of Duncairn Portrait Lord Dodds of Duncairn (DUP)
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My Lords, I am pleased to follow the Minister. It must be one of his shorter speeches in a Second Reading debate, but it beats the length of the speech of his Secretary of State in the other place, which was even shorter.

The Bill is inevitable, but putting the election back by two weeks is clearly designed to put pressure on unionists. It should include powers to get the money paid out to the public sector workers which the Government have announced they have but are withholding, for political reasons, from workers who are entitled to it.

The Minister said that he hopes this is the last time he has to do this. But as he knows, we are in this position because the current talks and process have to resolve the issue of the Irish Sea border, which is the consequence of the constitutional outrage, as it was described by one commentator this week, of the sovereignty- denying Northern Ireland protocol—or Windsor Framework, as it has been renamed—and the denial of equal citizenship to the people of Northern Ireland.

One way of looking at this is that the legislation is inevitable, since the deadline for formation of the Executive has passed. However, the interesting aspect is that the election deadline is being put back by only two weeks, so we are going through the whole process of rushing emergency primary legislation through the other place and this House in one day, to get Royal Assent, in order to push a deadline back by two weeks. One has to question what is really going on.

We want devolution in Northern Ireland. The DUP has been in a difficult position on previous occasions and took the courageous decision, when there was much opposition in the unionist community, to move ahead and restore Stormont back in 2008. We took decisions then that many people did not agree with, because we are committed to devolution and are prepared to try to move Northern Ireland forward, even though the people in power along with ourselves and other parties continue to eulogise, promote and defend terrorism. That is very difficult for many of us who were personally on the receiving end of assassination attempts; but many of the people we represented for many years had their lives destroyed through the activities of the IRA, and other terrorists from the loyalist side.

The fact is that we now have only Sinn Féin going about eulogising these people, so this is a difficult position that people find themselves in as democrats, never mind as unionists. Nevertheless, we have been committed to devolution. Some of the strongest and most sustained periods of devolution were when the DUP had the First Minister’s position. Nobody need come to us and say that we do not want devolution, but it has to be on a sustainable basis—one to which unionists as well as nationalists can give assent. It has to be on the basis of fulfilment of the Belfast agreement, as amended by the St Andrews agreement, and it has to restore equal citizenship for the people of Northern Ireland. Those are not major or surprising demands; those are basic demands—rights that we are entitled to.

On the issue of what the Government should be doing, it is really an abdication. I know that the Minister said he is a committed unionist. It really is the responsibility of His Majesty’s Government to move ahead on those areas for which they have responsibility. They are the sovereign power and under the Belfast agreement, as amended, they ultimately have responsibility for Northern Ireland’s internal government. To see a political manoeuvre being perpetrated on those public sector workers, whereby money that has been announced is being withheld for political reasons, is really unconscionable.

There is a whole list of other areas of which one could say the same. Fifty pay awards, I think—it is certainly many dozens—have been made in Northern Ireland in the period of the Assembly’s suspension. Yet when it comes to this major issue, which was the subject of strikes across Northern Ireland last week, the Government are deliberately withholding the money. They need to step up and move that issue forward.

The Minister thinks that two weeks will be enough to get out of the present position. I hope that is the case and trust that, in the next few weeks, we will get proposals that, as the leader of our party in the other place, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, made clear, meet the seven tests and deliver on what we have been discussing with the Government for some considerable period.

There are constitutional, democratic problems, and we saw a number of examples just last week. On the Rwanda Bill, the supremacy of the protocol means that the EU’s charter of fundamental rights continues, including article 18 on the right of asylum. The issue of addressing immigration will not apply in the same way to Northern Ireland, and we already have major issues as far as that is concerned. There was animal welfare legislation last week that could not apply to Northern Ireland because of the protocol. Whatever your views, yea or nay, on the live export of animals, it could not apply there because of the protocol. On the Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Bill, we had the bizarre situation whereby the legislation extended to Northern Ireland but according to the Explanatory Notes, the substantive parts of it did not apply because of the protocol.

Our Select Committee looking at the Windsor Framework protocol is taking evidence on veterinary medicines. We heard evidence last week from farmers and the agri-food industry of serious concerns about the fact that we are approaching a deadline whereby essential veterinary medicines will not be able to be supplied to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, with possible knock-on effects for public health. The Government say they are working on it, but we have not seen anything come forward. There were other examples in the newspapers back home—and that was in only one week. I say to the Government: that is why it is important that these issues are dealt with in a fundamental and complete way, because when any unionist decides to accept or settle for any deal on these issues, they will take ownership of them.

That is why it is important for the people who are negotiating, for all of us within our party and for other unionists to be absolutely certain that these issues are properly addressed, now and in the future, so that we are comfortable with how Northern Ireland will be treated with regard to these constitutional, democratic and economic issues. We will not be subject any more to this unacceptable, anti-democratic and unconstitutional difference. Of course, within the Northern Ireland Assembly, when devolution is open, it is up to the Assembly to decide for itself, under its devolved powers, what it wishes to do compared with England, Scotland and Wales.

But in Northern Ireland we are the recipient, across 300 areas of law governing our economy, of laws made by a foreign polity in its interests, to which we have no input. We have no power to develop or amend and, under the Stormont brake proposal, only the power to reject—and even then, not necessarily effectively and subject to retaliation from the EU.

That is no way to govern part of the United Kingdom; it is not the basis on which the Assembly was set up. It is not equal citizenship. Therefore, I urge the Minister to take the message back to the Secretary of State and the Cabinet Office that these are the issues that are causing the problem. I share his desire that this is the last time that he has to bring such legislation, but it is really dependent on him and his Government as to whether that is the case.

16:46
Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey (UUP)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks. I watched very briefly the beginning of the debate in the other place, and I have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, on the opening contribution from his right honourable friend in the other place. Indeed, I thought the shadow Secretary of State stole the show with at least some attempt to put some kind of gloss on what was before us in a very threadbare Bill.

I am entirely unconvinced as to the rationale for even having this Bill at this point, because I cannot imagine that there is any case at this stage, a few days after the last deadline ran out, for anybody to stand over a judicial review against the Secretary of State for not calling an Assembly election. For the sake of a few days, I do not think that that would survive. I hope that it is not a piece of political theatre that we are witnessing here.

Before dealing with the substance, I will follow on on the point about public sector pay. If ever there was any ambiguity over whether there was cross-party support for the Secretary of State’s actions in withholding this money, that was set aside in the Commons by the shadow Secretary of State earlier today. He made it very clear where he stood, saying that this tactic—because that is what it is—was fundamentally flawed and morally and politically wrong, and will not sustain itself even if we are forced through the fortnight this Bill provides for. I note the strikes that have occurred and the stresses that the withdrawal of significant parts of public services are putting on people. Let us imagine the parents of, say, children with severe disabilities, who are depending on a bus to arrive to take them to a day centre. Those parents do not know whether it will be coming this day or not. Do they have to make alternative arrangements? Do they have to get a relative to come in? Do they have to stay off work?

What are we putting these people through this for? We know the money is there; the Government are boasting about it. So let us sort that out; I think it would almost improve the atmosphere if it were done that way, because all we are doing is adding more stress to people who are already highly stressed. I hope that my noble friend can take that back to his right honourable friend in the other place, making it absolutely clear that there is no cross-party support for this policy. It is entirely counterproductive.

I also have to say that I feel that, when these one-day wonders come through—as they do from time to time on Northern Ireland affairs—one almost feels that this Parliament is like a legislative takeaway. You send out for a piece of legislation and ram it through both Houses in one day. People are fighting for pieces of legislation for a lifetime and yet we can stuff them through in one day. It is a terrible way to do business. I know that is not my noble friend’s choice, but it is almost always Northern Ireland stuff that is treated in this way.

The Secretary of State tells us that great progress is being made on restoring devolution. I hope that is true. In his opening remarks my noble friend talked about the Government’s commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. I point out to him that that was an all-party agreement, yet talks have been going on for two years in secrecy and none of the rest of the parties has been engaged except in a peripheral way. We all have talks with government and always have done, but this has gone on far too long. In fact, the best solutions always come when all the participants are at the table and accept the outcomes of the negotiations—otherwise we would have had no agreement. Trying to do it in a hole-in-the-corner way, with nods and winks here and nods and winks there, does not work. It does not stick. What happens if the DUP and the Government agree and come together? What about the rest of us? Maybe some of us will not agree with it when we see it: what happens then? It is a bad way to do business. Yes, people have to have their concerns addressed—I totally support that—but I think we have taken it far too far.

I do not want to rehearse the arguments that went on in this Chamber for so long over the departure from the European Union. I am no Europhile fan of the European Union. I am against the principle of a federal state: I never agreed with that. But the sort of problems that have arisen over our departure from the European Union were foreseeable, and they were foreseen in this House time and time again. A party delegation went to meet Prime Minister Cameron in February 2016 and, after that meeting, it was perfectly clear that there was no adequate plan to deal with our departure from the European Union should the people so wish.

We pointed out that a referendum has two outcomes and asked what the plans were if the people decided to leave. The answer we got was entirely unsatisfactory. Consequently, we recommended that people did not support leaving at that point under those terms and conditions. I would have to say that things are actually worse than I expected and that what we are dealing with now is the latest version of an attempt to bridge the virtually unbridgeable—which, of course, is the Windsor Framework, which is heralded as one of the Prime Minister’s most significant achievements since he has been in office.

I am quite sure that my noble friend will want to share with the rest of us what changes have been made to this agreement since February last year, and to show us the pages and the paragraphs where improvements have been made and some of the constitutional absurdities referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, dealt with. How are the seven tests that my noble friend behind me alluded to earlier today getting on? Is it going to be the case that this framework mark 2 is going to come up and we will have solutions? Perhaps the Minister can tell us what negotiations have taken place with the European Union, whether they have been successful and what mechanisms are going to be adopted and changes made to make these arrangements more palatable and more constitutionally correct—because, at the end of the day, that is what a two-year boycott has been about.

I listen to people talk about the Act of Union. We hear that some keyboard warriors have suddenly discovered that they have great skills in this area. It is a pity they were not exercising those skills when we had to deal with the Provisional IRA’s campaign against Northern Ireland over the years. Anyway, they have suddenly discovered the word “subjugation”, and I know my noble friend thinks of little else. However, can he explain to me why, if the Act of Union is the be-all and end-all and such a great thing—given that it was introduced in 1801 and it covered all of Ireland and Great Britain—there is an Irish Republic?

The truth is that this Parliament can legislate to say that apples are oranges. Important though it is, the Act of Union with Scotland would have been worthless if one more person had voted to leave than to stay. The same principle applies here. The best way to maintain the union is to maximise the amount of support on the ground so that more people want to stay in it than want to leave, and no Act of Parliament can substitute for that. In my view, we are fighting a sham fight while the people of Northern Ireland are suffering. We have heard about all the problems over health, education and industrial relations, which used to be the best in the UK. Now we are in a parlous situation.

Whatever comes out of this measure over the next couple of weeks, there at least has to be honesty, not a spin that something is something that it is not. People are sick of that. They want to know. If there are changes of substance, let us see what they are. If there are no changes of substance, people can say, “Look, we tried our best. It hasn’t worked out. We can’t go on like this. We’ve got to try another way”. Fair enough; we do not always get what we want, and not everything is successful the first time round. But the one thing I do not think people will tolerate is being led up the garden path and told something that is fundamentally untrue, so we will be watching very closely.

Lastly, I heard Sir Jeffrey in the other place saying that threats have been made against him. I totally deplore that. I can well understand it, because I know the threats that were made 25 years ago against our colleague Lord Trimble. He was tormented for years, I suspect by many of the same people who are tormenting Jeffrey today. The question is: what did they ever achieve? What did they ever get us? More misery, more deaths and destruction, and no progress. If anything is to come out of this, it is that that is not the way to go forward.

16:58
Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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I thank noble Lords who have already spoken. I shall kick off where the noble Lord, Lord Empey, finished. I think all of us from Northern Ireland involved in public life are shocked to hear Sir Jeffrey refer in the other place to threats. It appears that there is nothing new under the sun. These people who hide in the shadows and use the internet, in the way that we have talked about on so many occasions, seek to do damage and to push things in a particular way. I send my solidarity to Sir Jeffrey and I am sure the whole House will want to echo that in respect of the threats that he has received.

The Minister has made remarks about the union and his strong support for it. I very much welcome those remarks at the opening of this short debate on this very short Bill.

I will make three points. First, these negotiations between the Government and the DUP are essentially about the union and its operation. The union brought me into politics at a very young age, as the IRA tried to terrorise us out of the union in the late 1980s. Of course, the union is about more than trade and transactions. It is about cultural, political and social issues. It is about our shared institutions, security, safety, defence, and our place in the world; it all depends on the union. Economics and internal trade have been the focus of discussions around the protocol and Windsor Framework. It is so important that the internal market of the United Kingdom is restored and that the promise—I will use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Empey—of the Act of Union is fulfilled in so far that internal trade is unencumbered.

During the three years that devolution was blocked by Sinn Féin—between 2017 and 2020—civil servants in Belfast and Dublin constructed arguments for what they called the all-Ireland economy. They did this by retrofitting areas of co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—perfectly normal, practical co-operation between two jurisdictions. They used that as a way of constructing an all-Ireland economy. Very clearly, there was not an all-Ireland economy before they constructed it and there is not one now. A cursory look at the Northern Ireland economy shows the integrated nature of the supply chains between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This assertion, by civil servants—who by their very nature were unaccountable because devolution was blocked at that time—caused untold difficulties in the negotiations between the United Kingdom and European Union, because the assertion was just accepted as fact and was not challenged. I am pleased that the United Kingdom Government moved, after the May years, to grasp that fallacy and assert the primacy of the United Kingdom economy. That is really important. I hope that the negotiations, when they conclude, will underline the importance of the United Kingdom internal market and reject the notion—because a notion is what it was and is—that there is an all-Ireland economy, built up by civil servants. Many of them, Members of the House will be interested to know, are now political commentators on everything that goes on in Northern Ireland.

My second point relates to finance. It is so important that the finances of Northern Ireland are put on a secure footing. I welcome the funding package that has been referred to. Given that a lot of the money in that package—I think it is £538 million—is recurring expenditure, which will happen year on year and is not a one-off, can the Minister confirm the position regarding that funding? Is it an ongoing commitment? Will it be baselined into the Northern Ireland block grant or is it a one-off amount of money that has been made available? I think the Minister will agree that it is important to have stability in finances as well as in politics, because the two are often inextricably linked.

The third and final point is that we have heard a lot from Members of this House, and from outside, about reform of the Belfast agreement. There was very little talk of reform of what Mark Durkan, the former deputy leader of the SDLP, used to refer to as the “ugly scaffolding” when it was working to the advantage of others in Northern Ireland. Now it is not, the calls are very loud. Reform will come when there is an all-party and all-community consensus in Northern Ireland for it. Imposed changes will not work. It appears that there are many who want to use the parts of the Belfast agreement they agree with but change the parts they do not agree with.

I was no fan of the Belfast agreement, especially in relation to the release of terrorist prisoners and the lack of linkage to the decommissioning of paramilitary weaponry, but the Belfast agreement was endorsed fully by a referendum of people in Northern Ireland and people in the Republic of Ireland. The basis of that agreement is consensus politics between the communities—not imposition. Noble Lords should remember that when speaking about issues in Northern Ireland.

I say to the Minister that I wish the Government and the parties well as they seek to find a sustainable, workable and—God willing—durable solution to the problems of the protocol and the Windsor Framework.

17:05
Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow (DUP)
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My Lords, before I come to what I want to say today, I want to remind the House that on Saturday evening I attended a memorial service at a local border school to remember its former headmaster. He was abducted by the IRA while across the border having a meal with his wife and was found the next day with a bullet through his head. The memorial also remembered three former pupils of that small border college in Aughnacloy on the Monaghan border.

There were many people there that evening who had served in the security forces, and I looked across their faces and wondered whether I would have been as brave as those men during the Troubles, when more than 3,000 people lost their lives. Some 60% of those deaths are attributable to the Provisional IRA, 30% attributable to loyalists and 10% to the security forces—but, as I have said in this House before, when you drill down into that last figure, it is something like 1%, because the 10% includes incidents where the security forces intercepted terrorists en route to shoot or blow up something.

That was a very solemn occasion and it vividly reminded me of what went on in Northern Ireland during those years. We hope that is behind us. I have three colleagues sitting on these Benches today who have the marks of those years on their bodies. The IRA tried to murder them. Today, those same people are feted as great, courageous people. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Dodds mentioned that we took risks beyond what we should have ever been asked to take to bring us to the situation we have today.

Did we need to be here today discussing this Bill? If only government had listened to us when we said the protocol would not work. But who did they listen to? They listened to the rigorous implementers saying, “Get it done—implement it rigorously and vigorously”, until government then had to acknowledge. We would not be here today had government listened to us. For two years, we pleaded with the Government: “This is not going to do the job. This will not work”. It was only when Sir Jeffrey Donaldson removed the First Minister, and then removed his Ministers, that government started to sit up, listen and take note. I hope and pray that we never have to get to a situation again where government will just turn their heads, look the other way and listen to only one side of the debate.

I commend the three speakers who have spoken before me. They have hit all the right notes and all the issues. But, in looking at the Bill, which changes the date by which the Assembly election must be called, we must be real about why we are here. We are here for one reason and one reason only: the Northern Ireland protocol—now renamed the Windsor Framework; I do not know whether it will eventually come out like that —creates an injustice that is very simple. In 300 areas of law, it subjects the people of Northern Ireland to laws by a foreign parliament.

It thus effects the partial disfranchisement of 1.9 million people. Does anyone in that House care that that is happening? We in Northern Ireland certainly do. We need to see that fixed. Until the end of 2020, it did not matter what part of the United Kingdom you resided in; we could all stand for election to make all the laws to which we were subject. From 1 January 2021, that changed. Today, when UK citizens in England, Wales and Scotland can stand for election to make all the laws to which they are subject, people living in Northern Ireland are afforded the right to stand for election to make only some of the laws to which we are subject. To date, around 700 laws have been imposed on us; that figure will continue to increase as the years go by.

I am not going to debate the Stormont brake, as it has been mentioned here before, but what does it do? It cements this injustice rather than removing it. In the first place, it applies to only some areas of imposed law, and so falls at the first hurdle. In the second instance, even if it can be made to work, which many doubt, it does not restore to the people of Northern Ireland the right to stand for election to make all the laws to which we are subject. It just gives us the demeaning second-class—perhaps third-class—right to stand for election to try to stop laws that have already been made for us by a foreign parliament applying to us. As such, it is a far more humiliating provision than Poynings’ law—noble Lords can look up what that was; I did but I will not go into it—which is now regarded as a matter of shame by many people in GB. At least under Poynings’ law, the Irish Privy Council had the power to initiate and define legislation in the first instance.

In this context, we must be clear that it would not make any difference whether or not the Government removed every check on the green lane; let us remember that that pertains only to consumer goods that have a confirmed address in Northern Ireland. The fundamental injustice that is the protocol would remain. If we are not to find ourselves back here again in a short while with a similar Bill, the Government need to take responsibility for their own citizens and explain to the European Union that our votes are not tradeable—we are not some sort of a commodity—and that the integrity of our political system depends on treating all citizens as ends in ourselves rather than as a means to an end.

The Good Friday/Belfast agreement—whatever term you wish to place on it—ended a 60-year period during which the Republic of Ireland refused to recognise the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. Its constitution claimed the north, as it would call it; however, as a result of the Belfast agreement, the Republic recognised the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom for the first time and ceased to claim “the north”, in return for the provision of a border poll in the event that polling suggested majority support for the break-up of the UK and Northern Ireland joining the Irish Republic. The agreement also contains cross-border provisions that then became necessary to facilitate a good working relationship in the context of recognising and respecting the reality of the newly recognised border. I emphasise that at no point does the Good Friday agreement say that there can be no customs border.

There is much more that I could say, but, before I sit down, I want to say this. A guarantee was given that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position would not change without a referendum and the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. I stand in your Lordships’ House today and contend that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position has changed, but we have had no opportunity to say anything. So do I now conclude that that guarantee in the Belfast agreement—that there will be a constitutional referendum—has now been pushed aside and is no longer relevant? I am fearful, and I would like the Government, the Opposition and everyone else from any party that sits in this House to declare where they are. Our constitutional position has been changed and we have had no say whatever. I will stop there.

17:15
Baroness Hoey Portrait Baroness Hoey (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the chairman of the Democratic Unionist Party, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and to listen to his words of real experience. I hope that some of that gets back to the Secretary of State.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I listened to a lot of the debate in the House of Commons earlier, and I was pretty horrified by the Secretary of State’s short and contemptuous speech of less than two minutes to introduce the Bill. Like others, I thought the shadow Secretary of State tried very hard to deal with some of the issues. It was as if he genuinely understood the issue and the problem. I did not necessarily agree with his final analysis, but at least he made an attempt. The Secretary of State has continued to show contempt for unionists, unionism and the very important issue of why we are here.

Let us face it; it is not about money. The DUP was perhaps rather short-sighted in getting the money aspect and the constitutional issue linked. But I agree with all those noble Lords who said that it is disgraceful that the Secretary of State, knowing that the money is there to solve and to end the public sector workers’ strike, has refused to do that and simply said no. He probably thought, “Great—all the trade unions will now blame the DUP”. Of course, from the headlines—even yesterday in one of the Northern Ireland papers—we have seen the trade unions fairly and squarely blaming the Secretary of State. So that has backfired very much on him.

The contempt shown today has been going on for some time. All the things it was said that the Windsor Framework and the protocol were going to solve have proven to be nothing: there has been no real change. Northern Ireland is in the UK customs union, they said—but then of course we have to apply the EU customs code. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, mentioned something that happened last week. It was very nice to see the noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor, moving the amendment, which clearly showed that, once again, a Bill that we were saying extended to Northern Ireland—most people would think, “Great, Northern Ireland is part of it”—in fact does not apply to Northern Ireland. That is quite disgraceful.

Again, there is an attempt to hide things with words and flannel, almost as if the Secretary of State feels that Northern Ireland people are not clever enough to understand and see through some of these words—for example, saying the framework removed the Irish Sea border. What nonsense. That contempt now continues with the fact that there is no transparency whatever in what is going on. Even very active members of the Democratic Unionist Party probably do not know what is in this so-called deal.

I expect noble Lords will be very relieved to hear that the Public Bill Office ruled out my two amendments because this is a very narrow Bill—probably designed very carefully to make sure that we could not extend the discussion too much. However, when it comes to discussing Northern Ireland, we all find ways of hammering home some of the issues and points that so many noble Lords have not engaged with. I was trying to table an absolutely crucial amendment that was a real indictment of how the Government behaved right at the beginning of all this when they changed, in a statutory instrument, the mechanism at the end of this year for the Northern Ireland Assembly to approve or disapprove of the protocol from cross-community consent to a straightforward majority. Nothing else gets through via a majority, but suddenly, somehow, the Government felt that it was fine to change that from cross-community consent.

I was also trying to move that we should absolutely ensure that, when there is something in writing—I do not even know whether there is anything in writing being discussed—it should be published within a very short period of time. If there is any draft legislation, we need it as early as possible. We need clear answers from the Government on how long they will continue with these kinds of discussions. We keep hearing, “There’s progress and we just need a little bit more”. I have no idea what that “little bit more” is and neither do the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland—but we should know more about what is happening and what the Government are offering. Deep down, we all know that they have not been negotiating with the European Union. The EU has not been involved and, therefore, it is very unlikely that anything in the Windsor Framework will change sufficiently to satisfy the DUP’s seven tests.

So let us not try to put the blame on the DUP or say that it created the problem that we are dealing with today. This problem was created squarely by a United Kingdom Conservative and Unionist Government who decided that Northern Ireland was expendable when it came to leaving the European Union. As I say every time, we had the same ballot paper and the same discussions; it was a United Kingdom vote, but Northern Ireland has not got Brexit.

Forget talking about the Act of Union—the question for me is whether, at the end of all this, Northern Ireland will still be under EU law for substantial parts of its trade agreements. Everything coming to this House and the other place now needs additional bits about not applying to Northern Ireland. The one that is quite disgraceful, which we will discuss in a few weeks’ time, is the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill. Hardly any live animal exports go from Great Britain to the European Union, while lots of live animal exports go from Northern Ireland and the Republic to the European Union. Yet the one area being left out is Northern Ireland, because the EU does not have the same law and we quite rightly want to keep the flow between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Government have now used the excuse that the WTO will not allow it. Why have they not tried even to challenge it? That is perhaps an issue for another day.

I want to say one more thing about how the Government have handled and are handling this issue. Without doubt, a former Secretary of State has been ringing round senior DUP people, senior unionists and others, making suggestions about how they might be rewarded or that they should definitely begin to think about giving in.

I think that is absolutely shocking from any ex-Secretary of State, who has probably been brought in by the current Secretary of State because they feel that he knows quite a lot about what is going on in Northern Ireland. Those kinds of threats in a nice way will not work with people. We have seen some of the things that have been done in the past by Secretaries of State who did not listen, and perhaps in the whole working of New Decade, New Approach, who handled it in a way that was seen to be more in support of the Irish Government than our own Government. That is something that I hope the Minister—who knows Northern Ireland very well—will take up.

Obviously, I condemn any threats to Sir Jeffrey, and any other threats. However, all of us who come from Northern Ireland or have relatives in Northern Ireland who are involved politically or are living there now have all had threats of different kinds. It is important that, while we condemn that, we do not think that it is just one person who is being threatened. Threats come in different ways and in different strengths and are taken very seriously by the PSNI.

Everyone says that this Bill is inevitable. It is not inevitable. The Government could have said that they were going to go along with what they have said, that if by such and such a date, the Assembly was not back, there would be an election. They do not want an election, because they know that the mandate that the unionists—the DUP, in particular, and the TUV—would get to stay out until the seven tests are met and until we are back as an absolutely integral part of the United Kingdom would be bigger. That is why they do not want an election, and that is why, in a sense, the Bill is something that could have been solved by simply having an election. However, I am afraid we may well be back in a few weeks’ time because a two-week gap is pretty ridiculous.

In the end, the Government will realise that from day one they have handled this extremely badly. They have not stood up to their commitment to be Conservatives and unionists. Probably very soon, we will see a new Government, who I hope might take a slightly different approach from the way they have been handling unionists—pro-British people in Northern Ireland.

17:26
Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Portrait Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown (DUP)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introductory remarks. I have no doubt whatever in his strong unionist credentials. I must say that I do not have the same confidence, perhaps, in some of the other colleagues, but nevertheless, I have no doubt in his unionist credentials.

In preparation for this important debate, I attended the debate in the other House to listen to it. I found it very informative. I did indeed hear the words of my leader, the right honourable Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, in mentioning the threats that have been made against him. That is despicable, wherever that has come from or from whomever it has come. I and some other noble Lords in this House know exactly what it is to live under threats and to have those threats carried out. I had to be driven in an armoured police car for 25 years to carry out my duties as a Member of Parliament in the other place. Indeed, as noble Lords know, I received an actual bomb at my home on my 40th birthday and the house was shot up with over 50 bullets, just as the last action of the IRA, so that I would not be here. However, I thank God there is a greater power than the Provos, and that is why I am here. I thank God for his sovereignty and his providential care.

If anyone thinks that the threats across our community have finished, we know that dissidents are still threatening people. It is not only dissidents: outside Dungiven, we saw how those people went into the GAA place with their guns and threatened the people there. They had their weaponry with them, and they said they were the IRA. Therefore, those threats still go on.

I make this clear: irrespective of where the threats come, over the years those with principles have been willing to stand by them. We will not be threatened; we will not be bullied. Whether it be by the terrorists, government or anyone else, we will not be bullied into submission or move away from the principles that we believe in with all our hearts—I must lay that down right at the beginning.

Like my noble friend Lord Morrow, I attended an event on 17 January to commemorate the 32nd year since eight young men, who were travelling home from work, were brutally murdered on the Omagh-Cookstown road. For the past 32 years, I have stood with the families along that roadside. Come hail, snow or rain, we have stood there every year at the commemoration stone, even though others have sought to destroy it with bullets, hammers, sledgehammers and other things. The stone commemorates the lives of Gary Bleeks, Cecil Caldwell, Robert Dunseath, Oswald Gilchrist, David Harkness, Bobby Irons, Richard McConnell and Nigel McKee. We still remember them, and we will continue to remember their sacrifice and the pain that is still real in their loved ones’ hearts.

As I listened to the debate in the other place, I heard impassioned speeches from some, as well as some of the usual threats from others—not from the gun, but the usual political threats—should unionists not conform. In his introductory letter, the Secretary of State said that Northern Ireland has been without a fully functioning devolved Government since February 2022 and that the Government’s utmost priority remains restoring strong, stable and locally elected devolved institutions as soon as possible. Of course, the Government and Members of this House are fully aware of why my party pulled out of the Executive at Stormont. The Democratic Unionist Party did not create the impasse. Northern Ireland was plunged into constitutional uncertainty because of the actions of this Government in entering into an agreement with the European Union, over the heads of the people, that places Northern Ireland under laws from Europe that no representative of the people had any input in, influence over or ability to change. So much for democracy—and yet we are often reminded of what democracy would demand of us in going back into the Assembly.

What is being forced on the people of Northern Ireland under the protocol and the Windsor Framework is not democracy at work. How can we have 300 areas of law forced on the people of Northern Ireland when they have no power to change them? They have no representation in the place where those decisions are being made. In fact, they are being told to suck it up and take it—that is the way.

I am sad to say that the vast majority of Members in this House, when both the protocol Bill came through and the Windsor Framework was being debated, were willing to say, “Let’s have it”. In fact, when we debated the protocol, this House said that it could not be changed in any shape or form. Members sitting in this House said that the Democratic Unionist Party can blow in the wind and that this does not matter because the protocol will not, and cannot, be changed. We know that was not true; nevertheless, that was what was said. They were then forced into the position of saying that another agreement, the Windsor Framework, was the best thing: “Let’s forget about the protocol, let’s go with the Windsor Framework”. It involves a foreign jurisdiction making laws that we in Northern Ireland must adhere to, even though they are divergent from those that apply to the rest of the United Kingdom. We are supposed to be an equal part of the United Kingdom.

The Government said out of the other side of their mouth that they now wish to strengthen the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that they may bring forth legislation to do so. Did they really think we that we would believe them? Actions speak louder than words. We were told in this letter from the Secretary of State that a restored Executive would have access to a significant financial package, an extra £3.3 billion, to secure and transform Northern Ireland’s public services. That is a large amount, but when we realise that there is a major black hole in the finances at Stormont because Northern Ireland has been underfunded compared with the other devolved Administrations, and on top of that moneys have been allocated for the remuneration of public sector workers, we find that that substantial package is greatly depleted. Let nobody be under any misunderstanding: if they think that that amount of money will transform Northern Ireland’s public services, they are mistaken. There are major problems in the health service in Northern Ireland. There are major problems with education. Finances are needed across a vast area of Northern Ireland life, and yet we are told that this will solve the problem.

One of the most disgraceful and callous actions of the Secretary of State was using public sector workers who have not had a pay rise for three years and, as the shadow Secretary of State in the other House said in the debate, holding them hostages in this political game. We say that, yes, they were hostages: they were being held hostage and were pawns in his political game of trying to put the blame on the Democratic Unionist Party. Like every other Member in the other House, he has been told today, as he had already been told, to stop playing politics with teachers who provide an excellent education for our children under very difficult circumstances, stop using nurses and doctors who walk the wards of our hospitals day and night to aid our sick, stop abusing police officers who stand between us and those who terrorise the community. Secretary of State, release the money now that they are overdue. It was a deliberate decision by the Secretary of State to refuse to act. I trust that the noble Lord the Minister will take the message from across this House that that money should and must be released. Last week, my party colleagues personally put into the hand of the Chancellor of the Exchequer a demand that he release the money. I have been told that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is willing to release that money. Therefore, there is no excuse under the sun why the Secretary of State could not immediately order the payment that is due to those who keep our public services going in different spheres across the Province.

I noticed that the former Secretary of State, Julian Smith, said in the other House that what is being offered is a very good deal, that it is not perfect, but it is much better now. That is interesting, because he must have seen it. If he has seen it—and I am glad he has seen it —perhaps he could let some of the rest of us see it as well. He may have seen it, but if anyone thinks that anyone in Northern Ireland is going to take this Government at their word on trust, they are sadly mistaken. We have learned from the reality of the situation of life in Northern Ireland that we have to look at the detail and scrutinise the small print and then decisions can be made.

I notice that the Alliance Member for North Down once again threatens unionists that, if they do not give in, submit, surrender, they will be faced with Dublin’s involvement. It is sad that that Member comes from a very unionist constituency—there is a vast unionist constituency in North Down—yet, since he has come into the other place, he acts as a surrogate for Sinn Féin-speak. It is a total and absolute disgrace that he threatens unionists that if we do not bow to the diktat, we will have Dublin rule. I appeal to all unionists to stand united and strong as we face the onslaught of propaganda—and we will—and be sure not to give the enemies of unionism a bonus by turning in on ourselves. The old statement has always been: “United we stand, divided we fall”. Much has been heard about the Belfast agreement and its 25th anniversary, but we were told that the foundational principle of that agreement was cross-community consent: a majority of nationalists and a majority of unionists. It will be most interesting to see whether, whatever deal the Government finally offer unionism, a unionist Minister in the Assembly will be made to implement and enforce the Irish Sea border, as under the Windsor Framework, or has that been dealt with? Governments in the past have sold Northern Ireland short before; we are aware of that. Therefore, actions will speak louder than any pious words.

17:41
Lord Weir of Ballyholme Portrait Lord Weir of Ballyholme (DUP)
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My Lords, as perhaps the unelected Member for North Down, it is appropriate that I follow my colleague after his remarks. This is a very net Bill, and I understand the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that this is a form of takeaway legislation. Those are valid criticisms, although I would also say that, whatever concerns we have about that, the appropriate places to discuss such matters are this House and the other House—in democratic institutions. That is why I join others from across the House in saying that any attempt to threaten or intimidate any Member from whatever source—towards whichever Member—is utterly wrong. Politics must always be decided in a democratic and peaceful manner, and had others applied that lesson over the last number of decades, we would be in a much better place in Northern Ireland.

The Bill itself is one that, given the circumstances, is, as my noble friend Lord Dodds said, effectively inevitable. As for whether an election takes place or not, I am fairly relaxed one way or the other. Perhaps, given the polls, my party would pick up an extra seat or two, but the reality is that an election would not really tell us anything different from what we already know. It would, broadly speaking, highlight where the divisions are. Similarly, we have a shift of dates, but, as have we always said, what is actually important is not the calendar but whether the conditions are met. If extra time is being provided, what the Government will do with the extra time will be the critical matter to be resolved.

In resolving the problems that lie before us, the solution does not lie in bullying or bribery through a financial package. For months, I and my colleagues in this House and the other Chamber have highlighted that Northern Ireland has been underfunded. That is not something that we have simply plucked out of the air, but the application of the Holtham formula, if it were applied to us on the same basis as Wales, suggests what the fiscal floor should be for Northern Ireland. Those figures have been worked up through the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council. We have made the case time and time again. I know that the Member for Belfast East in the other place has highlighted this.

It is useful that, finally, the Government have accepted the merits of this argument; but to tie this in with a belief that you get this only if you are good boys and accept whatever is thrown at you is unacceptable. The crassest example of this culminated last week when the Secretary of State clearly tried to use the issue of public sector pay as pressure to say, “Well, if only the DUP agreed to this, all this money would be available”. The reaction, not just across the Chamber but from the trade unions, was remarkably consistent. I saw on television a range of trade union leaders whom I know and who, frankly, would run a mile before voting for the DUP. In the advantage that we have of PR elections, they would probably vote on the ballot paper for every preference other than the DUP. Yet they consistently said, to a man and woman, “No: if the Secretary of State has the money, government should be releasing the money”. The attempt by the Secretary of State was not only ill-judged but entirely counterproductive.

What will resolve this is dealing with the constitutional issues of the Irish Sea border. From the start of this process, it has been consistently said over many decades that we will have stable government in Northern Ireland only when we have systems which both unionists and nationalists buy into. Back in 2017, the Irish Government and Irish nationalism took a very tough line on north-south trade. At one stage, to his discredit, the then and current Taoiseach raised the spectre of violence re-emerging across the border if any level of customs was put within that.

In many ways, Irish nationalism got what it wanted in terms of north-south trade, but we have not seen equality of treatment for the concerns raised by unionists. It is perfectly reasonable for the EU to say, “For trade coming into the European Union, there need to be arrangements that protect the single market”. That is perfectly understandable. What is not understandable or acceptable is to extend arrangements which interfere entirely with the internal workings of the United Kingdom. For example, goods that are never going to go within the EU are subject to a range of restrictions and pressures; democratic institutions are held hidebound because of the lack of democratic accountability. This is not simply a constitutional issue, but one which applies from a practical, economic point of view.

We have seen—and not just in a theoretical sense—some large companies already starting to divert trade away from movement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A question mark exists as to whether a company in Northern Ireland could produce something to the same standards as GB and sell it in its own hometown, for example. That is the level of restrictions in place. Removing that Irish Sea border is the key to unlocking this solution.

Unfortunately, I have heard at least one noble Lord—not one who has spoken in this debate—parroting the line of Sinn Féin that the real reason why the DUP is opposed to restoration at this stage is that we cannot accept a Deputy First Ministership. Well, if that is the case, call our bluff. Deal with the constitutional issues and we will either accept it or be exposed to the world. We do not seek supremacy. What we seek is equality with our fellow citizens across the United Kingdom and equality between unionism and nationalism. Only with that level of stability, of getting something that both unionists and nationalists can buy into, can we have long-term stability in Northern Ireland. We need something that is clear, transparent and does the job. Part of the problem with the Windsor Framework is not simply that it did not solve the problems created by the protocol but that it was so overspun that there is a lack of trust in anything the Government put forward. Therefore, we need solutions that can clearly be demonstrated to have solved the problem.

I hope that today, small though this piece of legislation is, can be the first step on a route map to resolving the problems—either that or we will be back in a few weeks’ time in Groundhog Day. The choice very much lies with the Government to be able to deliver on that.

17:50
Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow that speech by the noble Lord, Lord Weir, which was one of the most thoughtful that we have heard this afternoon.

Lord Weir of Ballyholme Portrait Lord Weir of Ballyholme (DUP)
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The noble Baroness should not dare to accuse me of thoughtfulness.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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I also agree with what the noble Lord said, and share his sentiments, about the threats to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. As he said, such threats, wherever they come from and whoever receives them, are never, ever acceptable.

I thank the Minister for his introduction to this short Bill and echo his sentiments in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Empey, back to his place. We always enjoy his contributions, and we missed them when he was not around so much recently.

It is now nearly two years since the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed—two years in which civil servants have had to take decisions which should have been taken by the politicians elected to deal with the very difficult situation that faces the people of Northern Ireland on so many issues. As other noble Lords have said, the health system is in crisis, and vital decisions are not being taken on education, the economy and future financing. The people of Northern Ireland are being badly let down and, as others have already said, last week’s public sector strikes showed all too clearly the level of frustration that people now feel. Ample time has been provided to reach a conclusion. There have now been so many occasions when we had been led to believe that a decision was close, and then it does not materialise.

However, from these Benches, we recognise the huge amount of work undertaken by the Government in the last two years and that some progress has been made. We welcomed the Windsor Framework, and we welcome the financial package announced before Christmas—in particular, the separate stabilisation fund to undo some of the harm created by cuts and to tackle backlogs, and the transformation fund to allow Northern Ireland to improve its public services.

However, financial stability alone will not address all the issues. Financial stability requires political, constitutional and institutional stability. In that context, from these Benches, we sincerely hope that this latest attempt and necessary extension of the timeframe will result in a return to a fully functioning Executive and Assembly. For that reason, we will not oppose the Bill. We can but hope that this latest attempt is successful and that this is indeed, as the Minister has said, the last such Bill of this kind.

However, if this latest extension to 8 February does not result in the outcome that we all hope to see, will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to return with a more comprehensive Bill, which would not be subject to this truncated timetable? As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, this really is not the way to do business. Will the Minister further confirm, were such a situation to arise—which we all hope it will not—that he would be willing to consider more extensive reforms at that point?

Northern Ireland has to be governed and, however good the civil servants are, it is unacceptable—including for the civil servants themselves—to continue with the current situation. The people of Northern Ireland have been incredibly patient, but, every day that these issues are parked and the can is kicked further down the road, more and more damage is being done. Northern Ireland deserves better.

17:54
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, we have been here before—quite a few times. Even though that is the case, I and the Opposition support the Government in bringing the legislation forward. It will avoid an election, which I do not think anybody wants, and, because of the shortness of the period that the extension is covering—just two weeks—perhaps we are allowed some hint of optimism that something might be happening, and that there may indeed be a breakthrough or a deal before two weeks are up. We will not oppose the Government on this.

It has been an interesting debate. I certainly endorse the views of Members of the House about threats to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and others. It is entirely improper. I know from my time in Northern Ireland that those threats sometimes became real and ended in tragedy. I am sure that that will not be the case for Sir Jeffrey, but we nevertheless sympathise with him. He does not deserve that.

I also agree with the Minister that we welcome the noble Lord, Lord Empey, back after some months away. I very much welcomed his contribution. As always, it was wise, useful, important and came right to the heart of the matter. I also regret that my noble friend Lady Ritchie cannot be here as she has Covid, because she would have put a different point of view in this Chamber. We have heard, rightly, from the DUP, the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, a unionist point of view. I sympathise with the dilemma that unionism in Northern Ireland is in—of course I do. What I do not sympathise with is, however important that is—I will come to that in a second—it meaning that Northern Ireland should be without proper government and a proper democratic Assembly for two years now.

As a consequence of that, the civil servants are taking, or trying to take, major decisions that they cannot take; we have seen a strike of 100,000 people with 16 trade unions, which is, in effect, a general strike in Northern Ireland; we have seen a real collapse in public confidence in politics in Northern Ireland; and we have seen an apathy elsewhere in the United Kingdom about what is happening in Northern Ireland. If it were happening in Wales or Scotland—or, for that matter, Yorkshire—and a part of this United Kingdom was without government for two years and a proper decision could not be made, there would be an uproar. Instead, we hear, “Northern Ireland—it always happens there”. But it does not. The Good Friday agreement and subsequent agreements were all about avoiding this happening.

I was the direct rule Minister for five years in Northern Ireland. I did not like doing it, because it was not up to me as a Welsh Member of Parliament to take decisions about the future of men, women and children in Northern Ireland. The way it is going, we will drift back into that unless there is an agreement. We will drift to the general election, because that will put people off making decisions. That cannot be right.

I come back to the points that noble Members of the House from the DUP made about the protocol. I understand the dilemma that it puts unionism in, but that constitutional difficulty arose from the simple fact that Brexit occurred. Had there been no Brexit, there would not have been a protocol. Had there been no protocol, we would not be in the position that we are in at the moment, without democratic institutions in Northern Ireland.

We should always remember that there is another side to this argument: 56% of the people of Northern Ireland, a sizeable majority, voted to remain in the European Union. I know that that is not constitutionally proper because the United Kingdom is the member state. Nevertheless, if we are to talk about what the people of Northern Ireland thought about Brexit, it was a result of a constitutional and democratic referendum. It is not as simple as that, of course: if you break that down into how nationalists and unionists and those who belong to neither voted, it becomes more complicated. But my argument has always been that you can resolve, or hope to resolve, that issue simultaneously with the continuation of democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. Now, we are where we are and that has not happened, so we have to hope that there will be progress in the next two weeks.

I endorse the views of every Member of the House who has spoken on the pay settlement for public sector workers in Northern Ireland. They should be paid because it is the right thing to do, and they deserve that increase. Their cost of living should not be made worse because of this disagreement. Of course, they should be paid, and I hope that the Minister can give us a positive answer on that. It does not answer the dilemma of how Northern Ireland receives its money. There is a case, made convincingly in this Chamber over the past two years, that the Barnett formula as it operates is unfair to Northern Ireland. That must be remedied too, but let us remember that all these things can be more properly done if there is a working Executive and Assembly.

I do not know what is going to happen in the next two weeks. Let us hope that there is an agreement. If there is, or if there is not, when that Assembly returns, and when there is a working Executive, they should turn their minds to how to avoid this situation in the future. The Good Friday agreement has to be implemented in all its forms, but that includes a consensus among all Members of the Executive and Assembly, and all politicians in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee of the other place has suggested an independent review of the workings of the Good Friday agreement. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, will know, the agreement itself said that there could be reviews of the agreement after a quarter of a century. Instability has ensued over the last number of years—not just because of what the DUP has done, because Sinn Féin did exactly the same thing—so there has to be a prospect of stability and durability about democracy in Northern Ireland. I hope that is resolved by people in Northern Ireland themselves. Whatever the problems, differences or dilemmas, all of us in this Chamber hope that this will be resolved in the next fortnight.

18:01
Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, as always, I am incredibly grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate this afternoon and into this evening.

I, like a number of noble Lords, listened to the speech of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the other place this afternoon. It was a powerful contribution from the leader of the DUP, and I supported much of what he said, particularly in respect of those who—as my noble friend Lord Empey said—have tried to frustrate progress in Northern Ireland over many years and have delivered nothing. I was also moved by his comments about the threats and intimidation that he has received. I know I speak for all Members of this House when we pass on our support for him and wish him well. It was one of the Mitchell principles back in the 1990s that politicians in Northern Ireland should pursue their objectives exclusively by peaceful and democratic means. That is as sound a principle today as it was then and should be for the future.

With the leave of the House, I will try to respond to a number of the points that have been made. Inevitably, a number of speeches this afternoon strayed outside the scope of the Bill. Perhaps that was inevitable, given it has only one main clause and one main purpose, which is to move a date.

I am pleased that, at least, there appears to be broad agreement on the substance of the Bill, and I am particularly grateful to the opposition parties for agreeing to its expedited passage through this House and the other place. Our priority must be the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, and this is the issue on which we are completely focused. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, on that.

We all want to see progress within the next fortnight. As was said during the debate in the other place this afternoon, there is no deal at the moment. We hope there will be one within the space of time that this legislation provides. I say in response to a number of noble Lords who were looking for more detail that should there be a deal it will be brought before Parliament, and both Houses will have the opportunity to carefully scrutinise the details or, as my Democratic Unionist Party colleagues normally put it, the fine print. We are not there yet, and the House contains enough seasoned negotiators in Northern Ireland politics to recognise that it would be unwise, even if I were able, to go into detail at this stage about any discussions that might be taking place. In response to my noble friend Lord Empey on the rationale for the Bill, suffice it to say that we believe the next fortnight provides an optimum period for the possibility of reaching an agreement. That is where we are focused.

I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, that we will continue to prepare for all eventualities, and will update the House if it has not proven possible to restore the Executive by the date which is set out in the legislation, 8 February. She asked whether we would bring forward more substantial legislation. We are currently looking at all eventualities, but if new legislation comes forward, Parliament will have the opportunity to examine it carefully.

The noble Baroness mentioned the possibility of further reform, and my noble friend also touched on reforms to the institutions. The approach of the Government to this has been consistent over a number of years, and we will always look at sensible suggestions for reform. I agree with those who suggested that the Belfast agreement was never intended to be set in tablets of stone. It has already evolved, and there were changes. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, refers to the Belfast agreement as amended by St Andrews, as there were significant changes in the St Andrews agreement, and changes in the Stormont House agreement, and so on. The test for any reforms has to be that they will command widespread support and consent across the community, and they must be consistent with the underlying and enduring principles of the Belfast agreement.

Much of the debate focused on the reasons why devolved government is not currently in place in Northern Ireland, and the principal one is the DUP’s current opposition to the provisions of the Windsor Framework. If noble Lords will forgive me, and in the interests of time, I do not intend to have a lengthy debate about the Windsor Framework, which has been debated in this House on many occasions. Suffice to say, the Government are well aware of the concerns of the Democratic Unionist Party—it would be strange if we were not given the number of times they have been expressed. We are looking at what we can do to clarify any outstanding points there might be, recognising that the substantive negotiations came to an end shortly before Christmas. We are, and always have been, willing to clarify certain points that might arise.

Another key theme of this afternoon was the union. I set out my own rock-solid support for the union at the beginning of my opening speech. I will part company slightly with some of my colleagues behind me in respect of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. There are two constitutional outcomes provided for in the 1998 agreement, which are reflected in the Northern Ireland Act 1998: Northern Ireland is either part of the United Kingdom, or part of a united Ireland. I am very sure that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of this United Kingdom, something I wish never to see change.

The noble Baroness, Lady Foster—she is my friend—referred to the concept of the all-Ireland economy. I entirely agree with her, and the Government have made it clear, that there are two economies on the island of Ireland. One of those, the Northern Ireland economy, is an integral part of the world’s sixth-largest economy, from which Northern Ireland gains considerable strength and security. We should never forget that fact.

I hear what has been said about public sector pay; there appears to be unanimity among most of the parties in the House on this issue. I see the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, confirming that from his sedentary position. Let me reiterate, as I did at the outset, that the £3.3 billion package is very much on the table for an incoming Administration in Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, mentioned money for tackling current pressures. She will be aware that the issue of the block grant is, rightly, one for negotiation between His Majesty’s Treasury and an incoming Northern Ireland Executive, but I will take back her comments and may write to her in more detail on that subject.

In conclusion, I hope shortly to be in a position where we have the return of devolved government in Northern Ireland and no longer need to have these rather novel pieces of legislation. I agree with my noble friend that it is very unsatisfactory. All I would say is that it is certainly not the first time we have introduced novel and expedited legislation in Northern Ireland. I look forward to a time when any Northern Ireland legislation is dealt with in a proper and considered way while most of the decisions are taken, rightly, in the Assembly, by local politicians in that Assembly answerable to their electorate. On that note, I very much hope that we can make some progress in the next two weeks, before 8 February, as set out in the legislation.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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My Lords, we will now have a short period to allow Members to table amendments. Members wishing to table amendments should do so by 6.43 pm, so in 30 minutes, and should contact the Public Bill Office. We will now have a repeat of an Urgent Question and then a short adjournment at the end of the tabling period. When we return, if there are no amendments, we will take the remaining stages of the Bill formally and then move straight to Committee on the Victims and Prisoners Bill.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Committee stage & Report stage & 3rd reading
Wednesday 24th January 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2024 Read Hansard Text
Committee (and remaining stages)
18:56
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Finlay of Llandaff) (CB)
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My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to the Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. With the agreement of the Committee, I will now report the Bill to the House without amendment.

House resumed. Bill reported without amendment. Report and Third Reading agreed without debate. Bill passed.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

2nd reading
Wednesday 24th January 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Second Reading
Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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Amendments, new clauses and new schedules for Committee of the whole House may now be tabled by Members at the Opposition side of the Table of the House. I understand that the Chairman of Ways and Means has indicated that she will make her provisional selection of all those amendments tabled soon after 2 pm. If any amendments are tabled and then selected by the Chairman of Ways and Means, an amendment paper for the Committee of the Whole House will be circulated as soon as possible.

13:23
Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Chris Heaton-Harris)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a very short and, I would like to think, perfectly formed Bill. I thank all those who have helped to expedite this simple but important piece of legislation to this point. As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my focus has always been on facilitating the return of devolved institutions and upholding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its strands. This Bill is no different, and hopefully plays a part in that.

The UK Government believe in the agreement. We believe in devolution. We believe in localism. We strongly believe in power sharing. That is why I am today legislating to extend retrospectively the Executive formation period to 8 February 2024. The people of Northern Ireland deserve locally elected decision makers and want them to address the issues that matter to them. This very short extension provided for by the legislation will create the legal means to allow the Assembly to sit and get the Executive up and running as soon as possible.

Importantly, a restored Executive will have access to the significant financial package that I announced before Christmas, worth more than £3.3 billion, to secure and transform Northern Ireland’s public services. Ministers will be empowered to immediately begin working to address the needs of local people and unleash Northern Ireland’s full and amazing potential. This Bill to helps to deliver that outcome and support the return of devolved governance to the citizens of Northern Ireland. On that note, I conclude my remarks for now and commend the Bill to the House.

13:26
Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
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Another year, and another Bill to postpone the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. It is worth noting that the last time we did this, something quite significant happened five days later, when the Windsor Framework negotiations were concluded, so let us live in a state of hope—tempered, as always, by experience.

I thank the Secretary of State for introducing the Bill in such a timely fashion. We support it and I have met no one who thinks that holding elections now would help to resolve the difficulties that Northern Ireland’s politics are currently in. However, while we may be in agreement about the need for this Bill, I do not think we should let this moment pass without acknowledging that the Assembly elected 20 months ago has still not yet been able to meet. In any other democracy anywhere in the world, that would be a cause of anger, not to say uproar. The very essence of a democratic election is that the representative body should be able to meet and do its job. I would just observe that Northern Ireland surely cannot continue to be the only place where that does not happen.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the discussions that we have had. It is a pleasure to do business with him. As my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), said just under a year ago:

“It would, of course, be better if this legislation were not needed. Northern Ireland is a valued part of the United Kingdom, and restoring the Stormont Assembly and Executive should be a priority for the Government.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2023; Vol. 728, c. 238.]

I know that is a priority for the Secretary of State, because he has spent so much time negotiating with the Democratic Unionist party to try to find a way forward, and from the moment I took on this role I have tried to support him and the Government in that objective. With the negotiations, it appears, having effectively concluded, we have now come to the moment of decision.

I hope the DUP will return to government. I think the DUP should return to government. I say that for a host of reasons, but above all because the people of Northern Ireland need to have their Government back. The consequences of having no Government for almost two years this time around—and, of course, for almost three years when Sinn Féin walked out of the institutions—are very serious for the people of Northern Ireland. As we know, the Assembly cannot even elect a Speaker so it cannot meet, difficult decisions are not being taken, the public finances are in a parlous state, and when the floods struck last year and affected so many businesses and homes, there was no Government in Stormont for people to turn to for help—none.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Ind)
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When I was at home over Christmas, I took my uncle to the specialist cancer centre at Belfast City Hospital. It was a humbling experience to see the care and dedication provided by the staff in that world-leading facility, but the stresses and strains of a lack of funding and direction were clear. When institutions and systems fail, people suffer. This has to be the last time that legislation like this comes before the House. Let us get the institutions back up and running, or the Secretary of State, with the Irish Government, should find something else to sort it out.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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I agree with my hon. Friend that this is the moment to get the institutions back up and running. I wish the person he referred to all the best in their treatment.

The civil servants are left to make decisions that ought to be made by elected representatives. In the case of public sector pay, for example, some workers have not had a pay rise for almost three years—that should hardly bear repetition—and no decisions have been taken because there is not enough money in the budget to do so. That is why there was such a large strike last week, and I see that further industrial action is likely coming towards us. Everyone, including the Government, now recognises that that is not a sustainable position.

The proof on the Government’s side is that, in announcing the financial package, they identified money for public sector pay, but it will not be released until such time as the Executive are restored. If I may be frank, I understand why the Secretary of State took that decision initially, but in relation to public sector pay, that moment has now passed. That is why I called on him last week to release that part of the budget package so that the disputes can be settled, workers can get their pay increases and public services can try to address the many challenges that they face.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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The right hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Many public sector pay awards have been made—nearly 50 over the past year. The only reason the current one is not being made is that the Secretary of State is holding teachers, nurses and so on as pawns in the game that he is playing in his efforts to force us to make a decision that he wants us to make, but that we do not wish to make.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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The right hon. Gentleman links the pay question to his stance on the DUP’s difference of view on the Windsor framework and the protocol. I say to him in return that it is equally true that if the DUP were to go back into government, public sector workers would get their pay increase. That is why I said a moment ago that I hope very much that that will be the case.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Back home in the papers, with TV correspondents and in media statements, those in the unions say clearly that the problem does not lie with the politicians but—with respect—it lies with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has control of the moneys. He, in his own right, could settle the claims for those in education, healthcare and elsewhere. The moneys are there. The unions say, “Let the Secretary of State do it.” Has the shadow Secretary of State heard the same story that I have heard in the news and media?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have indeed heard the unions making precisely that point. I have set out to the House that I understood why the Secretary of State took that approach initially, but I do not think that public sector workers should continue to be held hostage to the failure thus far. I hope that it will change soon in order to solve this problem, which is why I am calling on the Secretary of State to release the funds now.

We need to be honest about how we got to the deadlock that the Government, and indeed the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), as the leader of his party, have been grappling with. One of the many consequences of leaving the EU was that a decision had to be taken about what to do about trade across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Everyone agreed that the border had to remain open—there were not many things on which everyone agreed when it came to Brexit, but that was one of them—and everyone agreed that the EU needed to be sure that goods crossing that border complied with the rules of the single market. There was no escaping that. The Government decided that the answer would be the Northern Ireland protocol.

Before I occupied this role, I was one of many people who argued that the implementation of the protocol would not work in Northern Ireland as originally intended, including for reasons that many in the Unionist community had pointed out. In fairness to Maroš Šefčovič, he understood what the problems were and changed the EU’s approach. That is why I genuinely believe that the Windsor framework represents a significant step forward, and why Labour voted for it.

Of course, detailed implementation will need to be worked through—that is another reason the Executive need to return—but most businesses tell me that the green lane is working reasonably well. As I said last week—I make no apology for reinforcing this point today—the framework is here to stay and will continue to be implemented by whoever is in government in Westminster. With respect, anyone who thinks otherwise has simply got it wrong, not least because any hope of negotiating future arrangements of benefit to Northern Ireland with the EU will depend on the Windsor framework being implemented. If the UK were to renege yet again on an international agreement that it has signed, which has happened before, no sanitary and phytosanitary agreement or anything else would be reached, because trust would once again have been destroyed—absolutely destroyed.

At the same time, of course, unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland continues to enjoy ready access to both the UK and EU markets, which is a huge opportunity for jobs and economic growth in the years ahead. Those are facts that nothing will change. What the Government have been doing, as we all understand, is negotiating on measures that they could take to reinforce Northern Ireland’s position in the UK internal market. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley has wisely and repeatedly said—and I support him in this—that any agreement has to be acceptable both to Unionists and to nationalists. That has shown great wisdom. In addition, there is now a financial offer on the table that I think provides a basis on which to go forward. After months of negotiation between the Government and the DUP, now is the moment to decide whether to restore the institutions.

On the detail of the Bill, of which there is not much, I have one question. In his press statement on 19 January, the Secretary of State said:

“I intend to introduce new legislation which will take a pragmatic, appropriate and limited approach to addressing the executive formation period and support Northern Ireland departments to manage the immediate and evident challenges they face in stabilising public services and finances.”

I take it from those words that actually he was referring to another Bill that he thinks might be needed if the current negotiations fail. Can he confirm that that is the case? I am not asking for any further detail, but we all hope that the institutions return and that such a Bill will not prove necessary. Will he assure the House that, as and when there is an outcome either way, he will immediately make a statement to the House?

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Gentleman asks in his questions to the Secretary of State about plan Bs and alternatives, but does he agree that any alternative to restoration of the institutions is suboptimal and not the settled position of this House? All parties have as their primary policy on Northern Ireland governance the restoration of the institutions.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree 100% with the right hon. Gentleman. He anticipates a point that I am just about to make in my concluding remarks.

Northern Ireland has come a long way since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in 1998. It is unrecognisable in so many ways, and for the better. In all of my meetings and visits, I have been so impressed and encouraged by the energy, enterprise and industry of those I have met, who are working hard to build a new and better future for the people of Northern Ireland. That really matters when we know, for example, that families in Northern Ireland have the lowest disposable incomes in the United Kingdom.

The longer there is no functional devolved Government, the harder it will be for those businesses to seize the opportunities that are available anyway, including because of access to the EU market. Businesses that are thinking of investing do not like uncertainty. They want stability—they want to know that a Government are in place—so the absence of a Government undermines the bright future that otherwise faces the people of Northern Ireland.

The basis of power sharing, which was at the heart of the Good Friday agreement—including devolved government—was essential to the making of progress. Of course, there have been bumps and difficulties along the way and periods of no Government, but a generation on from 1998, I simply want to echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith): we cannot give up on devolved government. It is what we in this House believe in, and it is the responsibility that we all take on when we stand for elected office. We cannot have a system where any of us chooses to put down conditions and does not take part if those conditions are not met. That is not how a democracy works.

As I am fond of saying, we have to deal with the world as it is, as we seek to change it into the world we wish it to be. It cannot be, surely, that politicians from all parties and communities in Northern Ireland are somehow unable to come together to establish the Assembly, form an Executive and get on with the task of governing.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very much enjoying the tone and the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. Of course, he is dancing between a majoritarian and a power-sharing arrangement in his comments, which are perhaps not quite as aligned as he might suggest.

This is not the first time that Stormont has been suspended. In the past, Sinn Féin refused to come back to the Assembly. As I understand it, that was due to concerns over the language, and the UK Government have taken steps in that regard in recent years. As such, would the right hon. Gentleman support the UK Government taking measures to address the current impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol, as modified by the Windsor framework? Could he support alterations that might be helpful in restoring power sharing and alleviating the concerns of the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for that intervention. I believe strongly in Northern Ireland’s place as part of the internal market of the United Kingdom. Since I took up this position, I have repeatedly made it clear that I will support any measures that reinforce that place and make it clear, but that are also consistent with the international commitments that the Government have signed up to.

Can I just pick the hon. Gentleman up on what he said initially? I am not arguing at all for a majoritarian position. I believe in power sharing—I am as wedded as the Secretary of State to the letter and spirit of the Good Friday agreement. I am making a point about the responsibility of politicians to participate in that power-sharing arrangement, and I would make those remarks equally to those who have collapsed the institutions previously and the current cause of the collapse, because in the end it is not in the interests of Northern Ireland to not have a functioning Government. I would like to clarify that.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will give way, and then I will finish.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Gentleman is raising a very important point. The whole point of the agreement and of power sharing is that it is based on consent, so how can the Unionist community consent to lawmaking by the EU in which that community does not participate and has no influence?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Gentleman asks a very pertinent question, but that is a consequence of a course of action that I personally did not think was a terribly good idea and he thought was a good idea. The moment we left the European Union, everybody knew that there would be a problem that had to be addressed. To keep that open border, there were only two practical propositions. The first was proposed by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the former Prime Minister: she came up with a scheme to try to keep the whole of the UK within the arrangements of the single market, having announced that we were leaving the single market. That did not work out, so the second option was to do the same in respect of Northern Ireland. That is where we are, and the Government eventually negotiated the Windsor framework, which is an important step forward. These things are going to have to be worked through.

Really, what we are talking about is the operation of the green lane. Everybody agrees with the red lane: if goods are coming into Northern Ireland to then head off to the Republic, of course they should be checked, and that is what the red lane is for. We are debating the operation of the green lane. The question is whether it makes sense for there to be no power-sharing Government institutions—no Assembly and no Executive—in Northern Ireland because of a debate and an argument about the operation of the green lane. My very strong view is that that is not sufficient reason not to have a functioning Government.

I will conclude just by saying that the people of Northern Ireland have been waiting long enough, and now is the time for everyone to get back to work.

13:45
Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
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I want to make a few remarks in support of my right hon. Friend the Minister who introduced this Bill. I think it is absolutely the right thing to be doing, and I pay tribute to the patient work over the past few months that he and the officials have done—those here in the Northern Ireland Office, in the Northern Ireland civil service and in the different political parties at Stormont.

There is a huge need for the institution of Stormont to be restored. Whether it is regarding public sector pay, which has already been mentioned, health waiting lists, creaking public services, charities and others relying on the public purse, or the limited offer of childcare in Northern Ireland, that institution needs to be back up and running. Divergence on medicines and other issues is also happening as a result of Stormont not sitting. The deal that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister put forward before Christmas is really good: it provides over £3 billion and will unlock many of the challenges currently facing Northern Ireland.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and his team seem to have negotiated a very good deal with the Government on issues around the Windsor framework. I hope that we will be able to see the results of that work in the coming days and weeks. I am sure some in his party will still have concerns. The deal will not be perfect, but it will be much better now that so much work has been done over the past few months to enable the DUP to go back into the Executive and make further arguments. For Unionism generally, being in the devolved Assembly is the key route to making the case for the Union—for the NHS, for the fact that being in the UK defence and security system is better for Northern Ireland, and for making sure that any remaining concerns on the post-Brexit arrangements are dealt with.

The Secretary of State has given an end date of 8 February for this Bill. My understanding is that the Government are supporting the final stages of the DUP negotiations. There is no bullying or any hard demands; there is just support for the work that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley is doing with his party and the discussions he is having. There is a real hope that, in making the decision to get the institution back up and running and to go back into Stormont, if the DUP does so, the future for Northern Ireland, and for young people and generations to come, will be best served, with local Ministers making decisions in the best interests of this key part of our country.

13:48
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will begin, as is sadly becoming customary, by saying how much it is a matter of regret that we are back here discussing a postponement to elections. I am very firmly of the view that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally, and that for the sake of all the people of Northern Ireland we wish to see the Assembly return in early course. Having said all that, however, we see no utility in or prospect of progress being made by holding an election at this point.

There were opportunities last year to reflect on the 25 years of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I remember with great pleasure the special meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Belfast. There were meetings across Stormont itself, and also at Belfast castle, at which those charged with the care of affairs and relationships between our islands and jurisdictions had the opportunity to benefit from the breadth of experience of those who were involved in the peace process, the Good Friday agreement and establishing devolution. As a temporary custodian of that role, I certainly found it incredibly valuable to have that transfusion of knowledge and experience. It was also a tremendous opportunity to reflect on how far all parts of the UK that have experienced devolution over that quarter of a century, particularly Northern Ireland, have advanced and progressed. It also brought into sharp focus how much is missed by Stormont sitting empty at present. I very much share the sentiment of the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) when he speaks about hope being tempered by expectation.

I always very much enjoy the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland, whether in a private capacity or in my role as the SNP spokesperson and, when I can, to engage with businesses, community groups and representatives of wider civic society. I have had much cause to be grateful to elected Members across various parties in Northern Ireland for the opportunities they have given me to do that, for the doors they have opened and for the insights I have gained. What I have observed from many of those visits is the sense of frustration at how politics is presently failing in Northern Ireland. I say politics rather than politicians deliberately, because it is a failure of politics across many strands that has brought us to this point.

We saw that bubble up most obviously with the recent strikes. In the debates we had in this place on the Northern Ireland budget, I highlighted the problems caused, and the potential solutions deferred, by civil servants having to cheesepare budgets within the confines of the ghosts of ministerial decisions past. I remember from my time in local government the frustration of council officers if we were unable to provide any clear political direction about what we wanted to happen. While it was always possible under different circumstances to set balanced budgets, how much better it was to be able to set them in the context of clear political leadership on the choices we wished to make within the resources at our disposal. That is certainly a consideration, because it is impossible to set the strategic budget directions that are needed in Northern Ireland right now in the absence of a working institution at Stormont.

When it comes to public sector pay, the Secretary of State says that using part of the £3.3 billion cash allocation to settle claims ahead of Stormont being reconstituted is a political decision, and therefore not one that he is willing to make. I would just say as gently as I can that deciding not to act is taking a political decision in its own way: the decision not to act is also political. I would join the voices in previous debates—I am sure we will hear them later—urging the Secretary of State to reconsider his stance on that. Public sector workers in Northern Ireland, on whom the brunt of the pressures caused are falling, really do deserve the pay settlements that their counterparts elsewhere in these islands have been able to get.

I mention in passing that it was said that the absence of a functioning Stormont was the reason why the UK Government were unwilling to make progress on providing funding for levelling up. I had a wry chuckle about that given the UK Government’s disinclination to work with the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales. There seems to be a certain amount of cherry-picking in the excuses offered. Punishing the people of Northern Ireland to try to bring to bear some additional political leverage on politicians has not been a conspicuous success so far. Neither do I believe it is an appropriate lever to use where public sector pay is concerned.

As I say, this has been a failure of politics. The fundamental problem that has led us to where we are stems from Brexit and the manner in which successive Governments chose to take that forward—against the express wishes, lest we forget, of clear majorities both in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. Again, I allow myself a wry smile, because during debates about the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 we were told that we would apparently be creating a trade border with the rest of the UK. Yet only two years later we saw the UK Government themselves going hell for leather towards creating a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I remember very much enjoying causing consternation on the Government Benches by pointing out in a Backbench Business debate about the Northern Ireland protocol, perhaps a little indelicately, that if Scotland were once again independent and in the European Union, we would be able to enjoy free trade with Northern Ireland. Neither can currently enjoy that as part of the Union, based on the deals that have been put in place.

In closing, I am very clear what my preferences are for the constitutional future of these islands, but short of that, bringing the UK back into the single market and the customs union would make this problem go away. Accepting that that is not politically realistic, given the stance of the current Government and the aspiring Government, closer alignment, on sanitary and phytosanitary matters especially, would be of enormous benefit, not just to people in Northern Ireland but right across these islands, particularly my constituents—speaking selfishly—and for those involved in agriculture and the food trade. That closer alignment would be much better, because the closer we align, the less significant these issues become, and that would be manifestly in the interests of all of these islands, whatever constitutional future we choose in future.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I call the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

13:56
Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). I listened very carefully to his assertions about an independent Scotland being a member of the European Union. I am not sure that that assumption is actually the right one, bearing in mind the view of some member states of that Union, notably Spain. That provides a reality check on some of the loftier rhetoric of the SNP about its position in Europe and the world, should it choose to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom.

I make that point, because the consequences of Brexit inevitably meant that an arrangement for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would always be difficult. I certainly bear the scars on my back, having been involved as a Law Officer throughout that process. Indeed, I helped to put together the Malthouse compromise—anybody remember that?—back in early 2018. I know DUP Members will remember that time very well, when we tried to work together to get somewhere that would satisfy everybody.

As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, we have to work in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. The one way we can actually find out about the operation of the Windsor framework is for the Executive to be able to operate it and to see how the green lane works—and if there are operational problems, then let us deal with them. I am as anxious as anybody to make sure that businesses and individuals, and everybody who wants to trade in Northern Ireland or through Northern Ireland, are able to do so in as free and uninhibited a way as possible. I do not want to see Northern Ireland cast adrift from the rest of our United Kingdom in that way.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. and learned Member makes reference to Northern Ireland being set adrift from the rest of the United Kingdom. Businesses in the United Kingdom are finding it difficult—bureaucratically difficult—to trade with Northern Ireland. As a consequence, the divergence of trade is continuing daily, and it is increasing. Everyone says, “Oh, the Republic of Ireland is booming”, but that is simply because its supply chain has changed. Goods are no longer coming through the UK, but straight from France. There is one point I want to find out about: what engagement has the British Government had with the EU on the changes that need to be made to the Windsor framework and the protocol in order for them to work?

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will answer on any engagement that the UK Government have had with Brussels. He is right to cast it at that level, because it is a matter between that Government and the EU, bearing in mind the Republic of Ireland’s membership of the EU, and the fact that the EU has that competence to negotiate a treaty. However, it is barely a year since the Windsor framework was agreed and in reality, coming back to the world as it is, it would be wrong of us blithely to assume that somehow that can be reopened here and now. I am not saying that it can never be reopened—of course everything can be reopened, and there will be an opportunity in a few years to look at the whole trade agreement that we reached with the EU in the 2025-26 review period.

My point is that unless we see a functioning Executive with responsibility for the operational aspects of Windsor being able to identify and highlight the problems and to raise them with the UK Government, at an appropriate level, we will not move the process on in the way that I know right hon. and hon. Members want to happen, as do I.

As I have said many times, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which we debated long and hard when I was Lord Chancellor, contains some measures that have been helpful and are now on the statute book. However, putting aside the “notwithstanding” clause, more was intended to be done legislatively to help cement the place of Northern Ireland in our UK internal market. I think that we should legislate, and I know my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) very much agrees with me on that point. We want to see that happen, but we are here in January 2024. I note the shortness of the period that the Secretary of State seeks to extend in the Bill, and I think that is sensible and right. Tempting as it is to have longer periods—I will not call them blank cheques—I do not think that would be right. I wish the Secretary of State, and everybody in the negotiations, well in coming to a sensible and pragmatic solution that allows the Government of Northern Ireland to continue.

I will not repeat the points made by right hon. and hon. Members. I see in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I chair weekly, the inability of the institutions of Northern Ireland to plan ahead in a multi-year way, and to provide the level of public service that I know they want but which they cannot do, bearing in mind the constraints under which we have to operate. Unlike previous periods of direct rule, this time there would need to be legislative change on the Floor of the House for that to happen. It has been made clear by the leadership of both main parties that that is not the policy of the British Government.

That is the world as it is, I am afraid, not the world as some would like it to be. I certainly do not want a situation where there is again an imbalance in our UK constitution that will only lead to more tension being stoked in the communities of Northern Ireland, rather than less. It therefore seems to me that the most obvious way forward now has to be the restoration of the Executive.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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There has been much use of the phrase “the world as it is” in the debate, which I think is helpful because we must be pragmatic about this. Is it the intention of my right hon. and learned Friend’s Committee to look at Northern Ireland as it is now, including levels of inward investment, for example, or how business has responded to the 12 months in which the Windsor framework has been in place?

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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We are in the process of preparing a report on the state of public services in Northern Ireland. We have taken a wealth of evidence, and I am grateful to the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), who are active members of the Committee. They will have heard the same evidence we have heard. We are looking into the energy market and the move to net zero in Northern Ireland. That is a very important issue, bearing in mind hard-pressed bill payers, and the particular pressures that they are under given the way that energy is supplied. We are also looking at issues as varied as education right through to paramilitarism.

On the Windsor framework, I sound a bit like Zhou Enlai, in that in some respects it is still “too early to say” precisely what its effects are. There is no doubt that, as the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) said—I am sure he will intervene again—there is already evidence of excessive bureaucracy and problems that are real for businesses on the ground.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan
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Because Northern Ireland sits under EU rules and laws, the carbon tax offset for energy costs is twice what it is in the rest of the United Kingdom, simply because we are having to take on board European law as opposed to what is passed in this House.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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The hon. Gentleman is right to point out some of the facts about the situation we find ourselves in. I will not labour the point, but I am afraid that the consequences of Brexit were always going to be complex and difficult for Northern Ireland, bearing in mind the particular importance of the border and the clash, if you like, between the irresistible force of the logic of a single market that wishes to police its border rigidly, and the immovable object of the fact that the border has a particular status and sensitivity that means that to make it excessively hard creates other problems and issues that we are all familiar with. That, I am afraid, is the difficulty that we all have to wrestle with. I know that this place sometimes risks sounding rather portentous and nannyish in the way it talks about Northern Ireland, and we have to be careful about that. But in resisting that approach it is logically correct to say that the best way to cure this issue is for the institutions of Stormont to function, and to function well.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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Does my right hon. and learned Friend have a message to the Unionist community in Northern Ireland regarding why they should put up with EU laws that they do not influence, and why they should put up with border controls when they are trading within our own country?

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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The message I would give is simply that we still need a functioning Executive to work out and bring to account, with proper scrutiny, issues with the framework, so that at a Stormont level it can be understood and debated in far more detail than with the time and capacity we have in this House. That work should be done thoroughly by the institutions of Stormont, so that this place, and the Government in particular, are even better informed about what they need to do to correct some of the problems that have been thrown up by the anomalous position that Northern Ireland finds itself in. That is where we now stand. We have to get on with exercising those institutions in order to solve some of the problems that right hon. and hon. Members quite rightly raise.

Before I finish, I will simply say this: I commend the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) for his forbearance, his patience, and the way he is approaching these issues. It is not an easy position for anybody to be in. All of us will have to make compromises in our political life—goodness knows that is something I have had to wrestle with. On behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, I say simply that he goes with all the good will and support that I can muster on behalf of the Committee. I hope that 2024 will be a moment not of more pause and political vacuum, but a moment when responsibility can be taken up, the reins of government can be held firmly by my friends in the DUP, and we see the progress for the people of Northern Ireland that I know everybody wants.

14:09
Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
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I thank the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for his comments, and I wish him well in his ongoing and important work as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

I say to the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), who is no longer in his place, that we recognise the pressures on our public services at this time, and we want to get to a place where we see our political institutions restored on a sustainable basis. As the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), reminded us, that must be on a basis that Unionists and nationalists can support, because that principle of cross-community consensus is at the heart of the Belfast and successor agreements. It is the key principle that enables those institutions to operate in what remains a divided society in Northern Ireland.

To be absolutely clear, the Democratic Unionist party supports devolution. We support the concept of the people of Northern Ireland being able to elect their representatives and to have good government delivered through the institutions of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are clear that our objective is twofold: to address the issues and problems created by the Northern Ireland protocol as part of the withdrawal agreement of 2019-20; and to provide the basis for the restoration of our political institutions.

We are approaching the two-year mark since my party took the decision to withdraw the First Minister, which then precipitated a process that ultimately resulted in the institutions not being able to function. That was not a decision we took lightly. For months in advance, I and my party made it clear that we wanted to see a negotiating process under way between the Government of the United Kingdom and the European Union to address the very real problems created by the protocol. Sadly, those pleas were ignored and there was no process. In fact, we were told variously by Irish Government Ministers, EU representatives and so on that the protocol would not be renegotiated.

I stand today and recognise that, as a result of the actions that my party took, the EU was brought back to the table, there were negotiations, changes have been made and further change will come. I watch the political discourse back home in Northern Ireland and I listen to the commentary of some who share our concerns about the protocol and its impact on Northern Ireland, but who are talking up that some deal has been done—clearly, they think they know the detail—and that it falls short of what they need or require.

My party can stand on its record of the change we have delivered and will deliver. I say to those who point the finger at us, “What have you delivered? What has the Traditional Unionist Voice party delivered by way of change to the protocol?” Absolutely nothing—not a single thing—yet TUV members put up posters in the dark of the night, before any deal has been done, talking about a sell-out. What have they sold? What have they delivered for the people of Northern Ireland? What has been their contribution to securing the change that we need to restore our place in the United Kingdom and its internal market?

We read lots of other pearls of wisdom on social media about what is needed and required. We hear all kinds of speculation from commentators about what has been agreed, despite the fact that they have not seen the detail. There is undoubtedly an attempt to orchestrate opposition to a deal and agreement that are not yet concluded. The very fact that we are here today in the House of Commons extending legislation reflects the reality that no agreement has yet been reached. If it had, we would not be here.

There are some, though, who are putting it about for their own narrow purposes that certain things have been agreed, the deal is all there and they know what it is. They are entitled to their view—everyone is entitled to their perspective—but they should wait until an agreement is reached before they make their final verdict and assess the progress that has been made before they reach their conclusion. I suspect what is going on is not about that.

The truth is that there are some—a tiny minority, but there are some—who do not want Stormont back or an Assembly in Northern Ireland. They would rather have imperfect direct rule than an imperfect Stormont. That is what they say, yet they are the same people who constantly berate the Government of the United Kingdom and this Parliament for selling them out. They constantly point the finger at the United Kingdom Government and say, “You have sold us short. You have betrayed us. You have let us down,” yet they want to hand all the power back to that Government. That is not the view of the vast majority of Unionists or people in Northern Ireland, and we understand that, which is why we are committed to getting a solution, moving things forward, making progress and resolving the issues that have harmed Northern Ireland—our economy, our businesses and, yes, our place in the United Kingdom.

I am a proud Unionist. I am proud to be part of this United Kingdom. I am proud to have served my country in this Parliament for almost 27 years. I am proud of the service that I have given, unlike some others, to my country, when I put on the uniform of the Ulster Defence Regiment to protect everyone in the community from terrorism and violence, yet today, because of the stirring up that is going on, I was threatened by those who never put on a uniform and who have not served our country. I checked out one of the people who threatened me on the register, and they did not vote at the last election. They cannot even come out to vote for our future in the Union, never mind doing anything about it, yet they are threatening me, and people like me who are working day and night to try to find solutions and to move Northern Ireland forward on a basis that the vast majority of people can support.

I say this to those who stir up and threaten: the Provisional IRA attacked me in the past, and it did not deflect me from the task that I and my colleagues have to do our jobs and get the best we can for Northern Ireland, and I will not be deflected now. I will continue on the course. I will continue to engage with the Government until we get the progress needed to enable us to take a decision about whether the deal is sufficient to restore the political institutions.

Let us not forget that when we took the decision to come out of the institutions, it was about the protocol and restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and its internal market. It is about ensuring that goods flow freely from Great Britain to Northern Ireland when they are staying within the United Kingdom. It is about ensuring that our place in the economic and political Union is respected and protected in law. That is important, and that is what we are striving to achieve, to ensure that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is valued, respected and protected, and that our right to trade within our own country is respected and protected.

That is what we are aiming to achieve, but I make no apology for us also aiming to strengthen our ties across this United Kingdom. Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has altered the way in which we govern in this nation. Brexit—our decision to leave the European Union—has altered things, which is why, as part of what we are proposing, we want to see a more joined-up, cohesive approach across the Union, working together on economic issues, trade issues, education and health. We are working to make progress on that.

I want to talk about something else, which I found quite insulting: when the Secretary of State convened talks at Hillsborough to discuss the funding of our public services in Northern Ireland. I did not ask him to do that. I am very clear that for me this is not about the money; this is about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. When we have made the progress that I hope we will make, we will sit down with the Government and finalise arrangements in relation to the future sustainability of our political institutions and the funding of our public services.

I want to echo comments made by other colleagues in the House. Our public services are only as effective as the people who work in them. During the covid pandemic, we saw our healthcare workers—our doctors, our nurses, our ancillary staff and our care workers—on the frontline working hard, taking risks and putting themselves on the line. In education, our teachers are investing in the future of our young people, and many others work across our public services in Northern Ireland. They deserve their pay rise. They have earned their pay rise. It is essential to the delivery of our public services that they get their pay rise.

In advance of reaching an agreement on the outstanding issues—whenever that might be; I believe we are moving towards finalising them—I hope that the Secretary of State will transfer the funding for 2023-24 that the Treasury has committed to and enable our public sector workers to have the pay rise that they deserve. I urge the Government to do that; we do not want to see politics played with them. I note that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Northern Ireland has today come out with yet another statement calling on the Secretary of State to act. I echo those comments. Those people deserve the pay rise. I hope the Secretary of State will reflect on that.

In conclusion, some have said that they hope this is the last time we have this type of legislation, but that requires us to reach agreement. It requires us to resolve and finalise the outstanding issues so that we can move forward. We can assess the progress that has been made and we can take decisions around the restoration of our political institutions if that is the way we are to go. But I am clear, and my colleagues are clear, that this is not about any price. We have fought hard and will continue to fight hard to get the outcomes we need for everyone in Northern Ireland, to restore the cross-community consensus that is essential for the proper functioning of our devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. We will work at that.

I simply say to my fellow Unionists in Northern Ireland, whatever their political persuasion or background, that the notion that a Unionism that turns in on itself is a Unionism that can deliver for Northern Ireland, to make Northern Ireland work and to secure the Union for the future, is not the way to go. We will provide the leadership that is required—because that is what is necessary to make Northern Ireland work—to ensure that our place in the Union is valued, respected and protected in law and in practice, to remove the barriers to trade so that we can trade in both directions with the rest of the United Kingdom, and to ensure that our Union is stronger and that Northern Ireland’s place within it is both respected and protected. That is what we are aiming to achieve.

We will assess the outcome against our seven tests, which we have set out clearly, determine the progress made and make our decisions based on these matters. We will do so rationally and clearly, recognising that we are the custodians of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. On our shoulders rests a huge responsibility. We will not shirk that responsibility, and we will not be found wanting in continuing to defend Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

14:25
Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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This will probably not do the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) many favours, but I congratulate him on the tone of his speech. I found it to be encouraging in that respect. Obviously, Northern Ireland is currently in an incredibly difficult place. In terms of the overall situation we find ourselves in, it is fair to say that there is disappointment, anger, frustration and indeed bewilderment that we do not have functioning institutions. That view is shared by the vast majority people in Northern Ireland and, indeed, by businesses and civic society organisations.

When the January 2024 date was set in the previous Bill, it was so far off into the future that it seemed inconceivable that the institutions would not have been restored by that point, but here we are. It is in a sense bizarre to see a piece of primary legislation going through this Parliament essentially to extend and facilitate a negotiation by two weeks. Decisions could have been taken at any stage in the previous year—indeed, in the previous weeks and days—to avoid this situation.

On the surface, this is a simple Bill, but beneath it lies a much bigger story. This may well be a pragmatic extension in the hope and expectation of a breakthrough, and I sincerely hope that that happens, but the people of Northern Ireland have been patient—overly patient in many respects—about bringing matters to a conclusion. There will always be a degree of scepticism until we see a positive outcome. For others, however, the Bill amounts to kicking the can down the road for another couple of weeks and potentially deferring the much bigger decisions that will have to be taken in the event that we do not see the speedy resumption of devolution.

One aspect of the situation we find ourselves in is the story of Brexit, which was alluded to by both the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). It is about how the DUP backed a hard Brexit and did not reconcile that with the implications for Northern Ireland in terms of the special arrangements that had to be put in place. There is no perfect solution to the challenges that Brexit poses to Northern Ireland. The Windsor framework offers perhaps the best approach to putting a square peg into a round hole, short of a wider reassessment of the UK’s overall relationship with the European Union, but I must stress that whatever residual issues exist with the Windsor framework—I fully accept that businesses have frustrations with certain aspects of what they see; the same applies for consumers in some respects—they all pale into insignificance compared with the absence of functioning institutions and the ability to take decisions on health, education, our economy and protecting our environment.

As the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), said, we are also seeing real consequences in the wider trust and confidence in politics itself in Northern Ireland. Politics is not working, and that is a dangerous place to find ourselves in. It is not simply that issues are being parked for the eventual resumption of the Assembly to pick up where we left off. Every day the impasse goes on, more and more damage is being done to Northern Ireland’s public services and we are losing economic opportunities.

I do not want to get into too much politics today—there has been a lot of that—but nevertheless I have a responsibility to say that there are other options we can consider. The DUP has been allowed to essentially hold the process to ransom with impunity over the past 12 months, in terms of blocking the Executive. I understand the point about cross-community confidence in any Executive, but blocking the functioning of the Executive goes against 75% of the people of Northern Ireland. There is a world of difference between checks and balances on individual decision making with the institutions, and a party pulling them down and stopping them from functioning and having no Government at all. The fact that we have to legislate for direct rule—if that is where we end up; I stress again that I hope we do not find ourselves in that situation—shows that previous legislators did not envisage a situation where the Assembly would not be functioning.

The space for negotiations around the Windsor framework is narrow. We have to be realistic. The Windsor framework is an agreement between the UK and the European Union, and there will be consequences from unpicking it unilaterally. Equally, we cannot unpick the Good Friday agreement, so the space is narrow and centres around implementation. I want to again stress from the Alliance party’s point of view that we would be open-minded on any solution that comes forward. For us, the key element is that Northern Ireland maintains dual market access to both the UK internal market and the wider European market. Outside that red line, we are open-minded. If checks across the Irish sea can be reduced or limited in some cases, we are all for that. None of us wants to see them, but at the same time we recognise that due to the fact that Northern Ireland has special arrangements, and there is a good reason for them, some degree of checks across the Irish sea might be needed. Northern Ireland has always had special arrangements throughout its entire history, right back to the foundation of the state in the early 1920s, and they were accepted with pragmatism for very good reasons. I urge that that is the case today.

On the financial package the Secretary of State referred to, I again put on record my and my party’s thanks to him and his wider team in the Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury for putting it together. It is a bigger financial package than we have seen in previous breakdowns of devolution. At the same time, however, I have to say that the glass is somewhat half full. It will buy some time for a restored Executive, perhaps a couple of years of stabilisation, but there is still a much bigger conversation that we have to have in conjunction, potentially, with the next spending review on a proper fiscal floor for Northern Ireland. I appreciate that there are reasons why the current Government cannot go down that particular avenue, in terms of their wider spending commitments and the Prime Minister’s five pledges, but it is important to stress the point that that wider discussion still needs to take place.

I join colleagues from Northern Ireland in stressing that we would like to see the Secretary of State moving ahead with the public sector pay issue, which has no leverage whatever in the negotiations. The money is there and it should be released. Equally, while we all might wish to dump on the Secretary of State and put pressure on him—he is a player in this regard—frankly, that release would be quicker and smoother if DUP colleagues returned to the Executive tomorrow, next week or whenever. There are two ways we can address the rightful claims of public sector workers: through the action of the Secretary of State or a speedy resumption of devolution.

In the event that we do not see an outcome in the next couple of weeks, we must look at alternatives. Perhaps that is a debate for another day, but there are two directions of travel. For me and my party, reform is the key way forward. The Good Friday agreement was never meant to be set in stone. It was always envisaged that it would evolve with circumstances and changing demographics. Indeed, many of the architects of the agreement—people no less than Senator George Mitchell himself—recognised that review and evolution would be important. Reform is important to facilitate restoration, or, if we get restoration, to learn the lessons of the instability, lack of cohesion and unfairness of the past 25 years and prevent a further collapse from happening. But the principles of the agreement, the structures, and the set of relationships across these islands remain sound.

To conclude, I think it was the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who made the point that all the parties in Northern Ireland are committed to devolution. Reform of the agreement keeps devolution alive. If we end up with the presumed default of going for direct rule, we move outside the Good Friday agreement. It might be the pragmatic solution in the circumstances, because Northern Ireland must be governed and public services have to be funded, but none the less we must recognise that that is a big step away from devolution. Reform is consistent with the agreement; direct rule is not.

However—this is an important point to stress to those people who are again opposing a deal and the way forward—in the event that we do not get restoration and we end up with direct rule, that direct rule must have an Irish dimension to it. That Irish dimension will be consultative and build on existing structures within the agreement. We have to recognise that direct rule, in a divided and diverse Northern Ireland, will be controversial. We have to recognise that in our governance and put in place mechanisms that balance it out. That is the reality. [Interruption.] I say to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who is muttering from a sedentary position—I am happy to take an intervention from him on this point—that the principle of consent remains in place. However, the principle of an Irish dimension has been established for quite some time, going back to the Anglo-Irish agreement. Of course, the Good Friday agreement acted to take much of that away, but that is the direction of travel. Those people who are arguing against progress in Northern Ireland and saying that we have a cover blanket of direct rule to fall back on, need to think very carefully about what they are calling for. What I am setting out is not what I want to see, and it is definitely not what they want to see, but that is the trajectory they will find themselves on if we do not see the speedy restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive.

14:37
Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and I have not agreed on much recently—in fact, he kind of drives me crazy—and we do not agree on much of what we have debated today or over the past couple of years, but I strongly believe that he comes at this from a position of strong belief. He comes at it in an attempt to represent his constituents. He comes at it from a good place. It is a different place from me and we want to end up in a different place—and I might argue that he is helping us along in that regard—but I say this very clearly: those people who have threatened him today could not lace his boots, and every single democrat in this House or elsewhere should stand in solidarity with any of us who are being attacked like that. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

I think we are in a more hopeful place today than we have been. Last week, I was expecting to debate a much wider piece of legislation that would have seen us going in a different direction. If today’s Bill symbolises that we are getting closer, at least, to a resolution, we must welcome that and give it space. Nobody is more frustrated at the slowness of the process than I am. Nobody has expressed frustration more than I have about how we got into this situation. It is nearly two years since we had a Government in Northern Ireland; before that, we had covid, which was a very strange time, and before that we had three and a half years, after Sinn Féin brought the Government down, of having no Government. People in Northern Ireland now feel that the default setting is to have no Government. That is not good enough. Any of us in this place who believes in devolution and put their shoulder to the wheel around this peace process, should ensure that, very soon, we have democratically elected politicians in Northern Ireland dealing with these issues.

I find the state of our health service embarrassing. According to figures that I saw the other day on dementia diagnoses, some people in the western part of Northern Ireland are waiting nearly six years for a diagnosis. In what modern democracy should that be seen as acceptable? We are very lucky that people are not out on the streets in uproar over such figures. The public sector is tied together with a string, and our health service is at the point, if not beyond the point, of collapse.

That is not the fault of the people who have been asked to go into the tough places and do the tough work for very little pay. We proposed an amendment—and we understand that the scope of the Bill is very narrow— calling on the Secretary of State to pay those workers. Last week 175,000 people were on picket lines across Northern Ireland, in the cold and the snow. I think people will know that my preference is for the DUP to return to government as soon as possible, so that we have democratically elected politicians making these decisions and we can get the money into those people’s pockets, but I am furious that ordinary workers have been used as a political pawn because of our political failure. That is absolutely unacceptable.

Those people need their pay rise today. They are the people holding this thing together. They are the people whom we have asked to go and do the tough things for very little reward, and there is no longer any excuse for that money not to be paid. If there is a technical reason for it, I will come back tomorrow and we can debate a Budget Bill if the Secretary of State wishes, so that we can get money into those people’s pockets, but I do not believe there is any technical reason why they cannot be paid.

We have talked about solutions, and a great many have been proposed. The hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) talked about reform, and we are up for that conversation. In fact, I think that our amendment would have got the Assembly back up and running, if we used a different mechanism for electing a Speaker as at least a first step, although we also understand that we must have properly reformed institutions in Stormont. I strongly believe, however, that the best time to have that conversation is when we have a Government and an Executive in Stormont, because I fear that otherwise we would end up in a five-year negotiation about what reform would look like, and all the while we would still not have a Government in Stormont and locally elected people dealing with people’s concerns.

Some of us who are in the Chamber today have been through many long negotiations. I know that it is possible to go into a negotiation wanting to fix one little thing, and five years later not to have fixed it and to have done three or four other things that nobody asked for in the first place. We need to be cautious about that, and we need to be committed to reform. However, the first thing that must happen is that those who are elected to represent the people of Northern Ireland, and the person who is elected to be the First Minister, should be in place and allowed to do the job that they were elected to do. Then we will be able to have a proper discussion about how we should reform our institutions. A blind man on a galloping horse could tell you that we must reform those institutions, because they simply are not working.

Let me make one plea today to all the other political parties, and I will make this commitment myself. If we do get Stormont up and running, the next time a particular political party has a major disagreement, can we have a discussion about it, and can we all commit ourselves not to pulling the institutions down? The edifice of government should not be the first thing that goes when we have a difficult decision to make. I think that that would take us a long way.

I am glad that we have arrived at this point. I think that it tells us something about the direction of travel. The history of our place should remind us all that at some point we must take on our own dissidents wherever they may reside—in our own party, in our own community, or on social media. They need to be taken on because the representatives of a broad swathe of opinion—whether nationalist, Unionist or “not interested”—want ordinary people to be looked after. They want their health service to be properly resourced, they want their schools to function properly, and they want their public sector workers to be paid properly. The broad population want a Government in Stormont, and they want it now.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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Order. Before I proceed, let me remind hon. Members that the Second Reading debate must end at 3.23 pm. I assume they will want to hear the Front Benchers wind it up. I am not going to impose a time limit; it is up to hon. Members whether they choose to hear the Front Benchers or not.

14:44
Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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Without encroaching on the advice that you have just given, Mr Deputy Speaker, am I right to assume that there are three Back Benchers still waiting to speak? If that is the case, I think we can pass the time well between us.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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As things stand, yes, but one hon. Member left the Chamber and came back in, and another who indicated that she wished to speak has left the Chamber but is entitled to come back in because she heard the opening speeches, as did one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues. All I am saying is that I urge brevity. I know that that is difficult, but speeches are currently running for more than 10 minutes, and that is too long.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson
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I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I certainly do not take those comments personally, because it is a trait among those of us who are of Ulster-Scots lineage that we sometimes add a few extra words or phrases.

I am proud to speak in this debate. Let me first acknowledge the constructive tone adopted by the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood). He was right to say that should we find ourselves in circumstances like this in the future, we should talk. If I were not willing to follow the constructive tone of the debate, I would gently remind him that at the time when we tried to have those conversations, some were chiding us, encouraging us to take the action that we did and mocking us for not doing so; but I will leave it there.

I am also proud to follow the remarks of my party leader and the leader of Unionism, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who very carefully, clearly and thoughtfully articulated not just where we have been or where we are today, but the aspiration that we have outlined for a number of years. We have been to the electorate, and we have highlighted the difficulties and the deficits within the arrangements foisted on us, but the challenge for us all is to recognise that the prize for restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, for reducing the constitutional harm and for removing the democratic deficit, is the ability to return to a place where Northern Ireland functions as well as it has in the past: a place where people in Northern Ireland are confident of their position within this United Kingdom irrespective of their constitutional outlook, and a place where people in Northern Ireland can recognise that it is through their elected representatives directly and locally that they can shape their own future. It does not matter what passport they hold; they live in Northern Ireland and can benefit from, and do benefit from, a relationship that has spanned centuries on these islands.

My right hon. Friend referred to custodians of the future. I remind Members that our place in politics is to protect and promote our place within this United Kingdom. That is our first and foremost principle. To those who have raised questions in the last number of days, and who will no doubt continue in the next number of days to raise questions or sow discord, let me say this: the Democratic Unionist party is united in the task that is before us.

We highlighted the pitfalls and the dangers of what was proposed to us back in 2019, at a time when others dismissed and demeaned our position. When we asked for change and indicated the consequences that the proposals could have for power-sharing arrangements in devolution, we were dismissed. We were set aside. Yet through our actions, when changes were delivered in the Windsor framework, what we had been told were mythical unicorns suddenly became something that, while being far from rigorous implementation, constituted changes that recognised the problems and brought solutions. The very same people who had ridiculed and dismissed us turned round and said, “Of course all this is sensible and pragmatic, and we should move forward.”

When faced with the choice between religious observance of that which was agreed with the European Union and the importance of devolution, sadly there are those within Northern Ireland political society who chose religious observance of the EU. They lost sight of the prize of power sharing in Northern Ireland, where communities with different aspirations could work collectively together. That is where we find ourselves.

The Secretary of State and I have engaged on this, as he has with a number of colleagues over a considerable period of time, and I commend him for a number of things, including for delivering a speech that had fewer words than are in the Bill before us today. That was a remarkable achievement. But he did not have many choices that were workable, other than to present the Bill today. Of course, he could have brought forward legislation that addressed a budget for next year. He could have brought forward legislation that assumed powers from Stormont to here in Westminster. He could have brought forward legislation that set a regional rate of around 15%. I think it is fair in the context of this debate to recognise that he still may need to bring forward such legislation. While others speculate about the intentions of this short Bill—I have my own views on it and what it should have been—I think it is a recognition that there is still work to be done and that there is a commitment to do that work.

I cannot say where this will end. I know where I think it should end. I cannot say what the ultimate outcome will be, but what I see and hear and read in the papers at home bears no resemblance to reality. My party is at one in our position. We have stood together through worse times than this. Anybody who thinks they are going to come at one member of our party over the coming days and weeks comes at us all, and they do so for their nefarious ends, not for our collective future. The choices will become stark, but let us make a choice on the basis of where we are, not where others who do not wish anything to work think it is. That is the challenge for us, for the people of Northern Ireland and for the people we represent.

In standing in the position that I do today, with nine years as an elected representative in this House and 14 years as an elected representative and as someone who has lived in Northern Ireland benefiting longer from periods of peace than seeing troubled times, I can say that nothing will shake our resolve to get this right. I say that with only this in mind: the Secretary of State has taken the choice available to him today in proceeding with this Bill, and it does not end today. It cannot end today, and our commitment for the future needs to be emboldened further still.

14:52
Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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I am not too sure why we have the Bill in this form today, with the suggestion that we could have further legislation on 8 February. I suppose the generous interpretation is that the Government still recognise that a lot of work needs to be done to deal with the concerns of the Unionist population. The other interpretation is that this is an attempt to put short-term pressure on my party to come to an agreement on the basis of terms that are unacceptable.

I know that the Government are intent on trying to put the failure of their negotiations with the EU behind them because they have so much internal division with their own party about how they have failed to deliver on the promises of Brexit, but cementing this agreement into the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is not good for a Government who claimed that they wanted to take back sovereignty, and it is not acceptable to Unionists in Northern Ireland who have gone through terrorist campaigns, and shown resolve in terrorist campaigns, in order to stay within the United Kingdom.

We have had all kinds of pressure put on us. We have had threats. We have even heard more of those threats today, such as, “If you don’t go down the route of getting a resolution here, we will have to re-examine the Belfast agreement. We will maybe have to take away the safeguards that were put in place.” With Unionists now not being the dominant parties in the Assembly, it is easy for those who said safeguards for minorities were important in the agreement to dismiss them now. I listened to the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), and it is little wonder that many people in North Down regard him now as a Sinn Féin cuckoo in the constituency nest, because he talks and argues so much as though he were coming from a Sinn Féin position, rather than from the position of a constituency that is predominantly Unionist.

We have had the threats, including that there might be a change in the agreement that would take away the consensus, or that we might have direct rule that involves the Irish Republic, even though there is no provision for that in the Good Friday agreement. Of course, the Secretary of State has sought to say this at times—or through surrogates. I notice that the hon. Member for North Down echoed the words of the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in threatening that there could be big change that would be detrimental to the Union if we did not come to an agreement quickly.

We have had the bribes, and of course we have also had the bullying: “If you don’t go back into the Assembly, people will not get their pay rise.” I have to say to the Secretary of State that it does not become the current Government to use the workers in Northern Ireland as pawns in trying to push us into a situation. He well knows that this is unnecessary, because nearly 50 public sector pay agreements have been awarded in the last year. However, because there is now an opportunity to use public sector pay agreements, they are being used to exert pressure.

As far as we are concerned, and as our leader has made clear, we want to see devolution restored. In fact, devolution stopped only because the Government refused to listen. Furthermore, not only did they refuse to listen but they expected Unionists to stay in positions in Northern Ireland where they would have had to implement the very thing that we believe is destructive to our economy and will destroy the Union as well. That was an act of last resort. Nevertheless, the Government must be aware that the economic impact of the border in the Irish sea must be removed. The shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said today that the red lane was only for goods moving into the Republic and that that surely showed the integrity of the UK internal market. That is not true. There are many businesses in Northern Ireland that will have to use the red lane until they show where their goods have gone.

I spoke to a businessman this morning in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who told me that he had a consignment of goods come in this week with 151 individual items for which he had to identify the country of origin, change the product codes and provide weights and a whole range of other information. He is a small businessman. He sent me a message he had received from a major supplier in Manchester, where he bought 10% of his goods, who had finally said to him, “I can’t trade with you anymore. It is not worth my while, given the amount of paperwork.” He operates in Newtownards and none of his goods sell in the Irish Republic, yet he is subject to all this. Now he has to look for new supply chains, and it has been pointed out here many times before that the Irish Government are not behind the door in exploiting that. In fact, he told me that officials from the trade body in the Irish Republic ring him up on a regular basis and ask why does not buy from such and such a supplier in the Republic. It is no wonder that we have already seen a 15% trade diversion as a result of this.

This is hurting us economically. In the long term, it is hurting us constitutionally, too, with the application of EU law in Northern Ireland. We have seen it in the last week on animal safety standards, which cannot apply in Northern Ireland even though the law was passed by this House. Regulations on illegal immigration cannot apply in Northern Ireland, and there is a danger of having to introduce passport controls if Northern Ireland becomes a magnet for illegal immigration. We now have Bills being passed by Parliament that extend to Northern Ireland but cannot apply to Northern Ireland, and we cannot tolerate that.

Unless those issues are dealt with, and as the Secretary of State well knows, how could any Unionist be expected to accept that trade within our country continues to be disrupted? It will hurt businesses and, in the long term, our constitutional arrangements, causing divergence between Northern Ireland and the country to which we belong.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) indicated that he is prepared to work to resolve that challenge, and he has indicated that he takes personal abuse for working at it—that is the position in which politicians now find themselves in Northern Ireland. We did not create this problem. The Government created this problem, and courageous people such as my right hon. Friend should not be hung out to dry because the Government are not prepared to take on their masters in the EU.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call Jim Shannon. I would be grateful if he tried to confine his remarks to five minutes.

15:01
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I will certainly do my best, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Over the past few days I have received correspondence, emails and text messages from the people I represent and, as Unionists, they are all concerned about where we are with the protocol. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) mentioned my constituent in Ards, who sent me a text message this morning outlining the concerning amount of bureaucracy he went through for each of the 300 items he ordered from a wholesaler in Manchester.

What is the point of the protocol? Many constituents tell me that the point is to press the DUP to give up and go back in; the point is to strong-arm the Unionist people by withholding the necessary money—the Secretary of State will not use his power to allocate it. The Secretary of State knows that I have the greatest respect for him, and I always try to be courteous, but I can understand why some constituents believe that, because they see the Government legislating for something as non-urgent as relationships and sex education in schools, yet they will not give a pay rise to public sector workers. The unions want it, the £3.3 billion is there and the £600 million necessary for the wage increases is there. I suggest that the Secretary of State allocates the money immediately.

The mindset of the Northern Ireland people is perhaps not understood. As a people who were bombed and attacked by IRA nationalists for 30 years, we are not easily pressured or cowed. When it comes to protecting that for which my family and many other families shed their blood, we will not be blackmailed. My constituents want me to make it clear that all those who gave their life for Queen and country, as it was then, or King and country, as it is now, died for freedom, liberty and democracy.

I am given to understand that progress has been made, which I welcome. We want to see constructive progress, but I understand that we are not there yet. We are perhaps far from it, but there has been progress. My constituents are concerned about how this has been handled. Instead of being anxious to hear about how far things have moved and what has been achieved, the result of the seeming blackmail is distrust.

There is a feeling that the DUP has done its best for the nation, and I believe we are heading towards something that, constitutionally and practically, would prevent our children from having to fill in reams of unnecessary paperwork and allow them to operate in the UK as normal. Under the Windsor framework, our shopkeepers continue to have to sign off Trader Support Service declarations for goods from the UK, yet there is no paperwork when they purchase goods from the Republic.

Members will understand why we are a little less British in Northern Ireland than they are in Wales, Scotland or England. The presumption should be that Northern Ireland is UK-focused. We want to be UK-focused, and we want to continue buying from where we bought things in the past. Our traders, including those who trade with shops in Newtownards and Bangor, are paying accountants and spending money and man hours on something that need not be done.

One ridiculous example among many is pet treats that are deemed not to be safe to sell in Northern Ireland. They were safe before the Northern Ireland protocol and are still safe at the other end of the ferry journey in Scotland. We are working towards something that allows the health service to secure the same medications as NHS England, and that enables vets to access anything they need for their animals without additional costs or paperwork. This would reaffirm our place within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and stop reunification through the back door. These are the things that the DUP, ably led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), has been working towards.

The undoubted changes that have been secured will not easily be trusted by the Unionist people, not because the DUP has attempted to pull the wool over people’s eyes but because the Unionist people, whom we support and who support us, believe the media hype, and the actions of this Government appear to underline that hype.

The Secretary of State is aware that we in the DUP will not be blackmailed, and that we have continued to negotiate and secure further changes is testament to the fact that we will not accept just any deal. We will only accept the right deal. I fervently hope that the next few weeks bring about the last complex changes required for the good of the Unionist people and, indeed, of people throughout the Province, no matter what their political persuasion.

There should be no doubt that, should we fail to negotiate the correct deal, we will not be afraid to face our electorate. I look forward to seeing the deal and how the words on the page will affect life in Northern Ireland. Although I support a two-week extension and understand the reasons for it, I ask the Government to get the messaging right. Instead of seeming to work against us, they should work with us to find a solution and to get this right for every person of every colour and creed in Northern Ireland. We want a restored Assembly, but it must be the right deal. The Conservative and Unionist party’s Northern Ireland protocol has to be addressed. The power to make the necessary change lies at the feet of the Secretary of State and with the Government. We will do our best to bring about change and to find a deal, but we cannot, will not and must not ignore the voice of Unionism.

15:07
Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate. We are united in wanting the best for the people of Northern Ireland. In particular, we heard a very powerful speech from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), and no one who heard it could be in any doubt about his determination to fight hard for Unionism. The whole House will be sorry to hear that he has been threatened. Anyone trying to bully him clearly does not know him.

As my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State outlined, Labour supports this Bill and supports the ongoing efforts to restore the Executive as soon as possible. In the short amount of extra time afforded by this legislation, the restoration of power sharing and devolved government must be the Government’s absolute priority. While I commend the important work that civil servants are doing to keep the mechanics of the state functioning, the truth is that communities across Northern Ireland need the Executive and the Members of the Legislative Assembly to be back in their rightful place, taking the important decisions that are so desperately needed for the effective delivery of public services, health, education and to protect the environment.

On my visits to Northern Ireland, I have met many inspiring community groups that are struggling because of cuts and because of the cost of living crisis. Although all of these groups are making an enormous difference within and across their communities, they have all told me that the one thing that would make the biggest difference to their work, and for people who are suffering from the cost of living crisis, is a restored and functioning Executive.

Just last week we saw the biggest industrial action in Northern Ireland’s recent history, with an estimated 150,000 public sector workers joining the strike. There is clear and obvious widespread dissatisfaction with the impact and consequences of the current political situation in Northern Ireland. Given that the Government are legislating only to push the deadline back by 15 days, it is vital that we see quick progress and that the limited time available is not squandered. As the shadow Secretary of State has said, whatever happens, the money for public sector pay, which the Secretary of State has made clear is available, should be released, so that workers in Northern Ireland finally get the pay increase they deserve. The current situation must not be allowed to become the accepted norm. A failure to restore devolved government could cause and is causing damage that could take years to undo.

Labour will support this Bill. I urge the Secretary of State to do all he can to ensure that an agreement is reached and to keep the House informed at every stage.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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With the leave of the House, I call Chris Heaton-Harris.

15:10
Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to close this Second Reading debate. At the beginning, I spoke for a whole two minutes, because I wanted to hear what everybody had to say. I was hoping it would not go on quite as—[Interruption.] Quite as well as it did, but some important speeches were made, which I will come to in a moment. Clause 1 states:

“In section 1(1) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022, for “18 January 2024” substitute “8 February 2024”.

It provides for a short extension in time. Clause 2 deals with the extent, commencement and short title of the Bill. My two-minute speech was simply about keeping within scope, but we have managed to touch on Scottish independence, public sector pay, leaving the European Union, the Malthouse compromise, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs agenda and reform of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, all within two hours. I shall learn yet another lesson about Northern Ireland debates on the Floor of this House, and just say what I think all the time at the very beginning.

A number of excellent interventions were made in the debate. I will talk about the speeches we heard, but the interventions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) and the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) were all interesting and important. I wish to put on record for the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) that the whole House wishes his uncle well; the hon. Gentleman is not in his place, but it is important that we recognise that we are all human in this business.

I thank all those who made speeches in the debate: the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn); my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith); the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson); my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland); the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), who gave a fantastic speech and I associate myself with many of the comments he made; the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson); the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who made a characteristically passionate speech—I really appreciate the way in which he put his words and what he said—and, of course, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

The stand-out contribution came from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), and I thank him profusely for the conversations we have had over the course of the past weeks and months. I know that he really does want to get the best deal for Northern Ireland that works for both the nationalist and the Unionist communities, that is based on consent and that means that he can find the conditions to restore the institutions. I know that he and his party believe in devolution. He listed the number of things that he has managed to achieve during his leadership of his party, and he should be and can be rightly proud of what he has already achieved in that space.

The fact that the right hon. Gentleman has been threatened for doing the job he should be doing is a disgrace—it is extraordinary. Unfortunately, everyone in this place has to come across such things. The people making these threats are cowards and idiots, and I know that they will not deter him. I have noticed in my time as Secretary of State that the number of followers someone has on Twitter, or X, does not necessarily equate to the number of brain cells they might have or the amount of common sense or decency they display as a human being. Those characteristics are personal and ones that someone can display as a human being. Unfortunately, some people choose to have a different persona when they are on social media and when they are emailing some really stupid things. I promise him that I shall work with him and use whatever power I have to make sure that he does not feel insecure in going about his business properly, because no parliamentarian should feel that. As I said, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

When we gathered to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement last year, we noted that the hard-won gains of the peace process should be honoured by the restoration of the devolved institutions. There is broad agreement on the main substance of this Bill: that our priority must be to continue to restore devolution in Northern Ireland. I was asked about this by the shadow Front-Bench team, so let me say that that is the immediate issue on which I am completely concentrated.

The right hon. Member for Leeds Central asked what other legislation there might be. There could be future legislation, but I do not want to be in that place. He asked me to make a statement if things move, in order to keep the House updated. I absolutely guarantee that I will do so, should things move forward. Of course, he would expect me to be prepared for all eventualities, and I will update the House on my plans if it does not prove possible to restore the Executive by the new deadline. But I really do hope that those plans will not be needed.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about public sector pay, and a number of other Members mentioned it. The Government recognise the vital work that public sector workers carry out and they should be fairly paid in recognition of that work. However, the UK Government do not have the authority to negotiate pay in Northern Ireland. I recognise that the uncertainty on pay awards is causing pressure on Northern Ireland finances, which is why the Government put a fair and generous financial package on the table, offering a new Executive a non-repayable injection of help to restore the Executive and manage that pressure.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson
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This is not intended to spoil the mood, but the trade unions would be quite upset if we did not take the opportunity to say that they are not asking the Northern Ireland Office to negotiate their pay; they will negotiate with their employers, as is right in the normal course of events. They are asking that the money that was secured and agreed in December be released to their employers, so that they can get on and have the negotiations.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but that is a complete package that is available for a restored Executive.

I promised at the beginning of this debate to be as brief as possible. I know that we have more work to do in this Parliament on different subjects, but I hope shortly to be in a position where I can return to this Dispatch Box celebrating the return of a wonderful institution of devolved government in Northern Ireland. Practically speaking, this step—to secure Royal Assent on this legislation—is the first step along that route.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).

Bill considered in Committee (Order, this day)

[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

13:59
Nigel Evans Portrait The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I remind Members that, in Committee, the Chair should not be addressed as “Deputy Speaker.” Please use our names when addressing the Chair, although “Mr Chairman” and “Madam Chairman” are also acceptable.

Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Nigel Evans Portrait The Second Deputy Chairman
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It will stand on the record that my contribution was longer than anybody else’s during this Committee stage.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

15:20
Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third Time.

I wish to place on the record my sincere thanks to everyone involved in the Bill’s passage through the House for their support for its expedited passage. I particularly thank the Front Benchers of all parties for their collaborative and constructive engagement.

On Second Reading, a whole host of issues concerning Northern Ireland had a reasonable outing. I would like to think that the tone of the debate we have had over the course of the past two hours will be reflected in the positive tone we can take in our negotiations and talks over the next few hours and days, or however long it may be, so that we can get to the wonderful place that I believe we all want to get to.

I reiterate my comments about the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and his words. I have really enjoyed working with him, listening to him and understanding the points he makes when he represents Unionism so powerfully, as he does. I know it is vital to him that we get this right. Occasionally, some of our conversations have been repetitive, but they all have a point.

I hope he would acknowledge that I have a deep and fundamental understanding of the issues that he and his party have been outlining during the past few days, weeks and months, and I would like to think that those issues are being reflected in the conversations we are having now. I do not think anybody in the House does not want to see Stormont returned, the Assembly sitting, the Executive up and running, and Ministers making the choices that the people who elected them would like to see.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I am mindful that the Secretary of State introduced his comments by talking about the good will that we have heard in the exchanges between Members as we try to find a way forward. Will he use some of that good will to ensure that the £600 million needed to address the pay agreement with the medical sector and teachers is found from the £3.3 billion that he has? He must build upon that good will, make that gesture and ensure that the unions have the pay increase they seek, on which there is consensus from all parties on the Opposition Benches. Will he use that good will, build upon it and make that gesture today?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contributions, but I have said all I am going to say on that matter for today.

It has been nearly two years since the institutions have been up and running, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. Like the hon. Gentleman, I meet people from across Northern Ireland, those from both communities and those who are new to Northern Ireland, who have chosen to work and live there. They all want to see their institutions up and running, and that is important for democracy too. We all need to see the results of an election that was fairly fought delivered, because we are all democrats in this place. I prefer to win elections, rather than lose them—I very much hope I manage to maintain my lucky streak that I have had since I started to represent my seat of Daventry. Democracy is vital to our system, as is ensuring that every voter feels heard through the ballot box.

I place on the record my thanks to those who have engaged in the debate. I also place on the record my appreciation to the House authorities and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for their continued expert advice. Right hon. and hon. Members involved in the debate know that there could have been a different piece of legislation laid today, and that is probably where we were progressing to, so the slight course correction that we have made involved a huge amount of help from the people behind the scenes who make this place function so well. I put on the record my thanks to them.

I thank my colleagues and officials in the Government Whips Office for helping us progress in a smooth fashion. As ever, I am grateful to them for everything they do. As a former Government Chief Whip, I understand their pain.

I conclude by repeating what I said on Second Reading. People in Northern Ireland rightly expect and deserve to see locally elected decision makers address the issues that matter to them. I agree with them, and I genuinely believe the House does too.

15:26
Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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Now I can see the relief on the faces of the Government Whips. I will keep my remarks extremely short.

Once again, I thank the Secretary of State for being punctilious, in the proper sense of the word, in his dealings with me and in keeping me informed about what he has planned. I echo his thanks to civil servants, although I should think in civil service careers this is probably the easiest Bill to draft because that one line cannot have taken terribly long.

I join the praise for the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) for the speech he made and the passion he showed, and his willingness to set out the argument that has united all parts of the House, namely that it is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland to have their Government back. In whatever further conversations they are due to have in the next few days, I wish him and the Secretary of State every success in bringing the situation to a conclusion. In the end, the people who will feel the benefit of an agreement are the people of Northern Ireland.

We criticise the Government, but we look to them when we want things to be done—when we want them to help us to deal with problems or to advance the interests of society. That is why the people of Northern Ireland have the same right as everyone else to see their Government in place. Let me refer back to the comments that I made at the start of Second Reading: I bring my contribution to the passage of the Bill to a close in, I think, a slightly better state of hope than when it began. I wish all those involved every success.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Royal Assent

Royal Assent
Thursday 25th January 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 19 December 2023 - (19 Dec 2023)
14:34
Royal Assent was notified for the following Acts:
Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Act,
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act.
Royal Assent was notified for the following Measures:
Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure,
Church of England Pensions (Application of Capital Funds) Measure.