Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his presentation on the Bill. I recognise and acknowledge that it is necessary but, like him, I feel that the only solution is the restoration of all the political institutions of the Good Friday agreement. For that to happen, there is a need for interparty talks, involving both Governments, to take place fairly expeditiously to address all the outstanding issues in respect of these matters and those of the New Decade, New Approach, agreement that was reached between the two Governments back in January 2020, and which witnessed the establishment of the political institutions.

Before I progress to the content of the legislation and any political analysis, I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Weir of Ballyholme, to his place. He, like me and other noble Lords across the Chamber, served in the Northern Ireland Assembly; some of us served as Ministers on a range of issues in the Northern Ireland Executive. Across that chamber, I took issue with him on several occasions. Notwithstanding that, and although our political origins and politics on the constitutional issues may be different, I look forward to working with him on a range of matters. I also look forward to hearing his maiden speech today.

The purpose of the Bill, as the Minister has indicated, is to extend the deadline for forming a Northern Ireland Executive on 8 December for another six weeks, until 19 January. However, I would hope that the institutions of the Good Friday agreement will be re-established. I have some reservations about the Bill and, in considering this legislation, an immediate question arises: how and why have we got to this point in our political deliberations in Northern Ireland?

To me, this legislation represents not only a further manifestation, sadly, of political failure but is also the Secretary of State putting a sticking plaster on a running sore of ongoing political paralysis in Northern Ireland. It is kicking that proverbial can down the road until the institutions are established and then there is a further fall of them. There is a need to look at issues that we discussed in debating the previous legislation earlier this year, such as the designation of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister as joint First Ministers, and an end to these never-ending vetoes.

I honestly think that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland does not understand the politics or politicians in Northern Ireland. He and his colleagues seem to think that, by threatening an election, reducing Assembly Members’ salaries or preventing the payment of the energy money, somehow politicians will be brought to heel. An examination of the history and politics in Northern Ireland would show that this will not happen.

We have seen our local population in Northern Ireland be subject to the ransom politics of the DUP and the gamesmanship of the Secretary of State and the Government. None of these actions helps or builds reconciliation, which is urgently required, or builds good, harmonious living conditions for the people of Northern Ireland, or assists with the cost of living or the cost of doing business crises, or attempts to reform our health service to make it more accessible to the general public, who are lingering in pain trying to get on to waiting lists for assessment, diagnosis, surgery and treatment.

That brings us to the next question: what is the purpose of politics? It is about representation and delivering the needs of people and communities. This is currently hampered in Northern Ireland. Either through their own actions or the actions of others, elected MLAs are being hampered in doing their jobs due to the lack of political institutions as per the Good Friday agreement model. Interparty dialogue should have happened after the elections in May, rather than the political gamesmanship of the DUP and the British Government.

Although this is a stopgap mechanism, I ask the Minister where such talks have been since the Assembly elections of May 2022. What attempts are there to get the parties around the table to re-establish the institutions? What plans do the Government have to do just that? What is the plan to deal with the outstanding issues which have not yet been implemented from the New Decade, New Approach agreement of January 2020? All we have is the refrain that the protocol is preventing restoration—but the Assembly is not responsible for such negotiations. As we all know, protocol negotiations are the responsibility of the UK and EU negotiating teams. I gently say to the DUP, as I did on the night of the Statement, that no political ideology should be used to prevent the restoration of those political institutions when people’s lives are being sacrificed.

One aspect of the legislation disturbs me. Clauses 3 to 5 will ensure that Northern Ireland’s senior civil servants can exercise departmental functions in the absence of Ministers if they are satisfied that it is in the public interest. Having those powers for six months or until a new Executive is formed, however temporary, places them in an impossible position. Political decisions are required on budgetary allocations and budgetary reductions to departments to ensure that public services can continue to function. Those are decisions to be exercised by politicians and not by civil servants.

Over the past week or two we have heard from former senior civil servants. The former head of the Civil Service, Sir Malcolm McKibbin, stated on the “Red Lines” podcast that the Government are making the task of civil servants more complicated. He further stated that the guidance published by the Government on how civil servants take decisions would exacerbate the pressures they face. He stated that

“the challenge now is greater because primarily before it was permanent secretaries sorting out how to allocate additional resources—this time it’s about reducing services and there will be losers”.

He added that the lack of scrutiny around decisions that are expected to be taken for as long as the stalemate continues at Stormont is not a good thing.

Without a sitting Assembly, Assembly Members cannot sit on statutory committees to question and scrutinise decision-making by relevant departments. Sir Malcolm McKibbin’s successor, Sir David Sterling, said that the Civil Service was being put in an “impossible position”, while Andrew McCormick, a former Permanent Secretary, called this an “affront to democracy”. The current head of the Civil Service, Jayne Brady, has said that that they are civil servants and the people of Northern Ireland face challenging times.

We can all recall instances between 2017 and 2020 when Sinn Féin brought down the political institutions. At that stage, civil servants were empowered to make decisions and, as a result, there was some litigation involving decisions to be made in respect of an incinerator. Unfortunately for civil servants, if they make unpopular decisions on budgetary allocations and reductions, impacting the lives of people and the community, my fear is that there could be scope for litigation again.

What needs to happen is a restoration of the political institutions to which people are elected; a successful outcome to the negotiations on the protocol; the establishment of interparty talks looking at the appointment of joint Ministers to underscore equality, which would obviously mean legislative change; and an end to vetoes, which have prevented the political institutions from working properly. We need to put inclusion, reconciliation and equality—the central principles of the GFA—back in government, with interparty talks with both Governments, looking at the outstanding issues of New Decade, New Approach and putting a plan in place for the implementation of the outstanding issues.

When I was elected to the Assembly in November 2003, it was not sitting and the institutions were not working. My noble friend Lord Murphy was then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He docked our pay and there were the Leeds Castle talks, and, although we may not have liked their outcomes, interparty talks nevertheless took place because of the actions of a Labour Secretary of State.

In 2006, we were still in that limbo situation, and the then Secretary of State, Peter Hain, now my noble friend Lord Hain, of Neath, held talks that led to the restoration of the institutions in 2007. Although we may not all have agreed with the outcomes in that instance, my point is that interparty talks took place and efforts were made by the UK and Irish Governments to ensure that, with a view to resolving the outstanding difficulties and getting the institutions up and running.

So I say to the Minister and the UK Government: please convene interparty talks to get these issues resolved as quickly as possible. There obviously needs to be joint working with the Irish Government in respect of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, and I am pleased that efforts are being made in that regard. Although I support this temporary stopgap legislation, I believe that those political talks are urgently required.