Northern Ireland: Legacy of the Troubles

Baroness Suttie Excerpts
Tuesday 7th May 2024

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for her question. As I said in an earlier answer, the High Court in Belfast found that the legislation is compatible with human rights law in respect of independence and the ability to carry out effective investigations. To take her point about disclosure, the disclosure provisions offer the prospect of better outcomes than current mechanisms.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, does the Minister accept that the ongoing uncertainty caused by the Government’s appeal against the High Court ruling on immunity is merely prolonging the pain and uncertainty for victims and their families who have already waited so long for justice?

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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The noble Baroness will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree. The commission, as she knows, became fully operational last week and is now proceeding with its work under the distinguished leadership of Sir Declan Morgan, the former Lord Chief Justice, and Peter Sheridan, a former senior police officer.

Northern Ireland

Baroness Suttie Excerpts
Tuesday 27th February 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

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Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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Follow that, my Lords. It is always a privilege to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, who always speaks with such authority, common sense and passion, and this evening he surpassed himself.

I, too, will begin by paying tribute to Lord Cormack. He was incredibly kind to me when I was a new Member of this House. He always looked on in a benign, almost school-teachery way. I found myself agreeing with him rather more often than I would have expected, as we would nod to one another during some of the debates on Northern Ireland and Brexit. His contributions were based on experience and common sense and were always extremely well judged. He will be sorely missed. I, too, from these Benches pass on our condolences to his family.

This has been a wide-ranging debate about identity, with some anger and passion. There have been some very good historical speeches; it is always dangerous to highlight some in particular, but I particularly enjoyed the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Bew. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, also brought an element of common sense and pragmatism. I even found myself agreeing with elements of the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, which was a refreshing change.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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Never again, no.

The context for the debate, both in this Chamber today and in the other place yesterday, is the extremely welcome return of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, which we have already debated in this Chamber on several occasions. I, too, once again place on record my gratitude to the Minister, who has personally led the way so often on taking the stalemate forward. The deal was supported by the leadership of the DUP—although, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, said, for those listening to today’s debate it has not always been apparent from the DUP Benches—and holding this debate was in fact part of that deal.

It is understandable that noble Lords from the DUP feel extremely strongly that they have been let down; there were some powerful speeches on that. They feel that they have been let down on several occasions since Brexit, perhaps particularly by the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. They feel that they have been lied to and that, rightly, some of the past agreements to try to get over the impasse have been ever so slightly overspun; the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, spoke rather marvellously on that point.

This erosion of trust has led many to feel that their place in the union was not as secure as it once was. On the other hand, the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, made clear in her very strong speech that she feels that not enough has been done to give recognition in the Command Paper that there is another point of view. She even went so far as to say that she felt that it has deviated from the principles set down in the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.

On the deal itself that helped to take us to this position, I thank the Minister for his letter yesterday evening, which was still slightly short on the detail as to how some of the structures will work in practice, such as the east-west council and InterTrade UK. Instead of repeating my questions, I place on record just that I look forward to reading the guidance eventually and seeing the Minister’s future replies on these matters.

As other noble Lords have said, I hope in many ways that, following this debate, we can begin to move on. With the return of a functioning Assembly and Executive, we can begin to focus on solutions and practical alternatives, as well as vital issues for ordinary people in Northern Ireland, such as health, education and the economy. Northern Ireland has tremendous potential, with its access to trade and opportunities that other parts of the UK can be quite envious of.

The second part of the context of the debate is the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is a union made up of four separate parts, each with their own distinct and powerful histories. At present, it just so happens that all four parts of the United Kingdom have different political leaderships from different political complexions.

As the noble Lord, Lord Jay, hinted in his speech, making this work, as somebody who believes strongly in devolution, has not always been easy. In fact, respect and consultation are not all that they have been. Now that the Assembly and the Executive are back, I hope that the Minister will be able to concentrate on the consent and consultation mechanisms between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom to make sure that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are properly and fully consulted in a timely manner.

On a personal level, I have very much benefited from the union. I am a Scot whose father was born in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. I have a UK passport and an Irish passport. I left Scotland in 1990 and have since lived in London and Broadstairs in Kent and in the past lived in Brussels. I am strongly opposed to Scottish independence and the break-up of the union but do not think that you can simply declare or legislate to say that the union is a good thing. As the noble Lord, Lord Hay, said in his very positive speech, we have to demonstrate the purpose and added value of the union in the context of the 21st century and the global challenges we face. It is up to all of us who believe in the union to make sure that it is fit for purpose and that people see its added value.

The third element of the context of our debate this evening is the reaffirmation of support for the Good Friday/Belfast agreement and all its strands. Many noble Lords present this evening—including obviously the noble Lord, Lord Murphy—were personally involved with negotiating that agreement. There are also many here this evening who personally experienced violence during the Troubles, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, reminded us so powerfully of the importance of remembering the past as well as looking to the future.

However, it is important to acknowledge there is now also a generation in Northern Ireland who have grown up since the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement—people who have personally never known that violence. They have known only the more prosperous and peaceful times in Northern Ireland. That generation have a different world view from many of the noble Lords who have spoken here this evening. Sense of identity is changing in Northern Ireland. As my noble friend Lord Alderdice said when we last debated these matters on 13 February:

“there is an emergent third community, which has a very strong view about things and which is not partisan unionist and not partisan nationalist. It takes a view that what we want to do is to find what is in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland”.—[Official Report, 13/2/24; col. 227.]

It is also worth recalling that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement was agreed at a time when the United Kingdom was still in the European Union, and the European Union played a very important role in providing the context for the negotiations towards peace. It remains an incredibly positive and important document. It is an agreement that has been used across the world as a positive example of how a peaceful settlement can be brought about. However, the agreement is not set in aspic. Like all documents based on a series of compromises, it has to be a living document which changes and adapts to the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves. The very fact that we have had five of the last seven years—as the Minister reminded us—without a functioning Assembly and Executive shows that there is a need to revisit whether there are ways to bring about greater stability to the institutions. As I mentioned earlier, there is now also a sizeable alternative view, perhaps mostly represented by Alliance in Northern Ireland. That is another area where I believe we should look at some elements of reform.

A lot has happened since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement but it is still, I believe, an inspirational document. I was looking at it again at the weekend just to remind myself of the text. It is worth recalling that paragraph 3 of the declaration of support states:

“We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands”.


In recent years, some of this sense of mutual respect and trust has been eroded but I sincerely hope that, for the sake of Northern Ireland, we can begin now to see a return of these values. To quote the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, it is welcome that Stormont is back and for the future generation we should celebrate that.

Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2024

Baroness Suttie Excerpts
Monday 26th February 2024

(4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Those issues need to be given some diligence. It is important that a police presence is there, both inside and outside our polling stations, to reassure voters.
Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I shall be extremely brief because we support these SIs. Trust in elections is absolutely key to our democratic system. The review by the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, identified several areas where measures could be strengthened to reduce the risk of electoral fraud; these SIs stem from that, and are welcome.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked about consultation, but the instruments say that consultation took place with the Northern Ireland electoral bodies and the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. This is not always the case but I understand that, in this case, consultation took place. That is very much to be welcomed.

My only substantial question for the Minister regards training on these changes for the electoral officers in Northern Ireland and making sure that the changes are communicated properly. Can he give us an assurance that this will be done in good time ahead of the forthcoming general election? Can he confirm that there will be provision for sufficient resources to be made available in order to implement these changes?

The Minister will know that, when these SIs were debated last week in the House of Commons, some concern was expressed about the definition of “political campaigner”. Can he confirm that these changes will also be communicated to the political parties in good time? Can he say a little about how the definition of “political campaigner” will be monitored in practice?

Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these SIs, which put in place new rules on the handing in of postal votes in local, parliamentary and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, as provided for by the Elections Act 2022. An equivalent SI for Great Britain has already gone through both Houses, with noble Lords participating in the recent debate here in January.

The Act established that it was an offence for a “political campaigner” to handle postal votes other than in very select circumstances. These instruments set out the new rules for members of the general public, which will sit alongside the other measures that the Act brought in. We on these Benches will not oppose the SIs but we want to probe the Minister on their impact. It is always worth noting that, long before the 2022 Act, the Labour Party had for years been signed up to the Electoral Commission’s code of conduct for campaigners, which bans campaigners from handling completed postal ballots.

We seek clarity on who is covered by which provisions. Colleagues in the Commons, as the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said, raised the issue of the need for good understanding and communication on who is covered by the definition of a political campaigner, so people have absolute clarity on which set of rules applies to them. If a person puts a party poster in their window during an election, are they a political campaigner? How will electoral officers be supported to adjudicate on whether someone is a political campaigner or not?

We would like to see more clarity for voters, so that votes are not lost by mistake. Can the Minister give more detail on how the regulations will be made clear to voters, in order to avoid any votes being lost due to people being unaware or unsure of the new requirements?

Finally, I want to pick up on support for electoral officers, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and other noble Lords. Without a doubt, these changes will place some administrative burdens on our electoral administrators. The pressure on local authorities is significant; electoral administrators up and down the country are stretched and are getting their heads around the changes the Government are making, as we pointed out several times during the passage of the Elections Bill. In the light of the numerous SIs that have come before us, these changes will create an unprecedented level of work for electoral administrators. Will electoral officers be further resourced in Northern Ireland? Will they be strengthened to deal with the impacts and changes outlined? My noble friend Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick spoke about the consultation, which is referred to in the Explanatory Notes, but can the Minister tell us about the nature of the feedback from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland and the Electoral Commission? I look forward to his response.

Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024

Baroness Suttie Excerpts
Tuesday 13th February 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

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We desperately need, out of regard for truth, to be honest with the people of Northern Ireland about the situation that we face, and we are facing challenging times. I renew my call to fellow unionists, not only in this House but across Northern Ireland, to be faithful to their conscience and convictions but to be respectful to those with differing views. I have no doubt there are those who want to weaken and destroy unionism but together we can stand strong. I also believe that it is vital for all the people of Northern Ireland to enjoy the benefits of our precious union.
Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, I will try to inject a little positivity into what has been a very long and unfortunately rather negative debate, although I understand the many comments and justifiable criticisms made by the noble Lords opposite. Given the hour, I shall also endeavour to be brief.

I start by greatly welcoming that the institutions in Northern Ireland are once again up and running. That is an achievement and it needs to be celebrated. From these Benches I commend the political leadership and courage, and the ability to see the bigger picture, that have taken us to this point—not least the personal drive and commitment shown by the Minister himself. It is still early days, but I believe there are grounds for optimism that this time the Assembly will continue to sit.

The people of Northern Ireland are entitled to expect a period of stability, so that the many health, educational and economic crises can begin to be addressed. Before I turn to the details of the regulations I would like to recall, as other noble Lords have done, that we are facing all these highly complex issues, and the equally complex set of proposals and solutions in front of us, because of Brexit. I felt that the noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Hain, made that case extremely powerfully in tonight’s debate.

A colleague was reminding me just the other day of the excellent report on Brexit and the island of Ireland that the EU Select Committee of your Lordships’ House published way back in December 2016. That report so accurately anticipated so many of the issues that we are still trying to tackle, nearly eight years on from the EU referendum.

I would also like to commend the excellent job done by the Northern Ireland protocol committee, now the Windsor Framework committee, of this House. Several noble Lords referred to it and several are indeed members of it. It has done so much to scrutinise the realities being faced by Northern Ireland on these issues. No matter which of the latest solutions we are debating, I have always felt that it is the elected politicians in Northern Ireland who are best placed to find pragmatic solutions. They are also in the best position to resolve any continuing barriers.

This evening, so much of the focus has been on the understandable concerns about unfettered access and trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but perhaps too little is made—at least in this Chamber this evening—of the potential opportunities offered by joint access to the EU market.

In that regard, it is important that the Stormont brake is considered only as an instrument of last resort. It is important that the recently restored Northern Ireland institutions have a strong dialogue with Brussels and are in a position to flag potential issues as soon as possible. Can the Minister say whether he has had conversations with the Executive to investigate mechanisms for ensuring that effective dialogue takes place with the EU at an early stage in the process? It is extremely important that maximum attention is given to particular concerns facing Northern Ireland businesses at an early stage of the decision-making process in the EU.

Turning to the regulations themselves, the excellent short report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on these regulations—as quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie—states:

“Given the complexity of the interaction of two regulatory systems in NI, we note the importance of the forthcoming guidance to provide clarity to businesses and other stakeholders on how the new arrangements should be applied in practice”.


When does the Minister expect that this additional guidance will be published? Can he give continued reassurance about ongoing consultation with both the Executive and Northern Ireland businesses to ensure that this guidance is as effective and user friendly as possible?

As the noble Lord, Lord Hay, said in his very powerful speech, the devil will be in the detail on how these new mechanisms will work in practice. In a similar vein, can the Minister say when he expects further details and guidance to be published on how the new independent monitoring panel, InterTrade UK and the new east-west council will operate in practice? As other noble Lords have asked, how will they work with existing institutions?

It is also very important that other parts of the UK understand these new bodies and regulations and understand how they will work. This is particularly true for the business community and the rest of the UK Civil Service. Does the Minister anticipate a communications plan to ensure that the details set out in the Command Paper, as well as the future guidance, is widely understood by relevant stakeholders across the wider UK?

In conclusion, I believe there is every reason to be optimistic, despite the many speeches this evening. But we need to learn from the lessons of the recent past. We need to see a return to trust and inclusiveness in Northern Ireland politics.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it has been a long night, but an important night. I hope there will be another debate in the not-too-distant future which will allow more Members of your Lordships’ House to take part on this important issue. The Opposition support the statutory instrument, as we support the deal done by the Government and the DUP. I add my own congratulations to the Minister personally, to his boss the Secretary of State and, of course, to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and others involved in the negotiations in the last months.

It is significant that this is probably the first major debate we have had on Northern Ireland that has not been about emergency legislation and giving powers to civil servants. It has not been about bringing down the Assembly because of what has happened over the last couple of years. It is very positive in that respect. We are talking about the restoration of those institutions of government in Northern Ireland, and the Executive and Assembly in particular. That is hugely significant. I take the point about the money—it is the Treasury again, I suspect—but we will have an opportunity to debate that in future weeks. It is great news for the people of Northern Ireland, whatever their background and community, that they now have democratic government restored. For that, all of us, I am sure, should be grateful.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, in an extremely interesting contribution to tonight’s debate talked about the Act of Union—which was a long time ago—and how that was not set in stone over the centuries. If you look back at it since 1801, particularly in the 20th century when there was the old Stormont Parliament, of course there were customs regulations. When I was an Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland, there were customs regulations on agriculture and horticulture coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. It is not new, and the idea that somehow or other Northern Ireland should not be different really is nonsense, because Scotland and Wales are different and Northern Ireland is different in all sorts of ways.

The issue is that it is different within the context of our leaving the European Union; of course I understand that. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and my noble friends Lord Hain and Lady Ritchie all mentioned the fact that Brexit caused it. Whatever our views on Brexit—and I was very much a remainer, and I am deeply disappointed that my country, Wales, did not vote to stay in the European Union—it was Brexit that caused this and there are two points about that I want to make.

The first one is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain. I agree that the law is quite clear: you leave as a whole, as the United Kingdom. But it is the only measurement we have of what the people of Northern Ireland thought about the whole idea of Brexit. The second one is that I and lots of politicians failed when those Brexit referendum debates were going on to actually deal with the issue of Northern Ireland and Ireland; we were all to blame for that. We did not realise—I certainly did not—that the turmoil that would result in Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland as a consequence of Brexit would lead to the protocol and to the Windsor Framework and to this.

It is quite clear why we were in this mess and why we still have a long way to go to assuage people in Northern Ireland on the unionist side that things can only get better. This deal is not perfect; deals never are. It is a comprise; all deals are compromises. The Good Friday agreement was a compromise; the St Andrews agreement was a compromise. If we are to look at that Good Friday agreement, which is quoted all the time in the Command Paper, the two big issues that come out are the principle of consent and parity of esteem. The unionist argument over the last couple of years has been on both those issues: that the consent across Northern Ireland was not there with regard to the arrangements on leaving the European Union and, as a consequence, the parity of esteem was not there.

However many statutory instruments this House or the other House agrees, the union is safe, not because of statutory instruments but because, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, of the people. The people of Northern Ireland by their consent will agree whether to remain in the United Kingdom. When I first came into the House of Commons a long time ago, the policy of the Labour Party was a united Ireland. When Tony Blair became the leader of the Opposition, he changed it and said you could not argue for that; you had to argue for what we agreed in the Good Friday agreement, which was the principle of consent. All this other stuff in the deal, in the statutory instruments, is nothing compared to that basic principle that it is safe so long as the people of Northern Ireland so agree. Even if they did agree to leave the United Kingdom, that would not be easy either but that is for us to consider another day; it is safe at the moment.

This deal—this restoration of the Assembly and the Executive—is about not just strand 1 but strands 2 and 3 as well. If you bring down the Assembly and the Executive, there are no north-south bodies. But strand 2 was an integral part of the Good Friday agreement, which would not have happened without it. The nationalist community had to be satisfied that it was being regarded with parity of esteem as much as the unionists—and strand 2 did that. I do not have many questions for the Minister, but I will ask this: what precisely will happen with regard to the North/South Ministerial Council and the north-south bodies as a consequence of the restoration of the institutions of strand 1?

Northern Ireland Executive Formation

Baroness Suttie Excerpts
Thursday 1st February 2024

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it was only last week that we debated the legislation deferring this decision and pondered whether we would arrive at a settlement. The Minister was very coy but, as the result of a great deal of negotiation, we have now arrived at a considerable and significant deal. I congratulate both the Secretary of State on the work that he has obviously done over the last number of months to achieve it and the Minister, who I know will have put in a huge amount of effort and used his great knowledge of Northern Ireland to help ensure that this deal came to fruition. I also put on record my party’s appreciation of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the immense work he has done over the last number of months, against all odds and with grave threats. He has done a great service to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

I also thank the civil servants in Northern Ireland, who have ensured that there has been government there for nearly two years in the absence of an Assembly. They should not be forgotten. The Minister referred to the document. It is a long one—80 pages of decisions that have been taken to ensure that the deal is effective. There are some ingenious solutions there, such as the internal market between Great Britain and Northern Ireland being ensured and guaranteed. Also, now in Northern Ireland we have an internal market—including the east-west council and the InterTrade body that the Minister referred to—as well as the operation of the single market. I hope that those two factors will ensure that Northern Ireland will have access to markets far beyond what businesses in Scotland, Wales or England would have. Above all else, of course, this leads to the restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday agreement: the Executive and the Assembly and, of course, the strand 2 institutions, the north-south bodies. Can the Minister elaborate a little on what might happen with those bodies?

I welcome the financial settlement. At last, we have a needs-based formula for Northern Ireland, as we have in Wales. That has been fought for by the parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the DUP in this Chamber, for some time now. Even though a lot of money, £3.5 billion, is going over to Northern Ireland, the Executive and the Assembly will have a really hard job on their hands to ensure that public services are maintained, particularly the National Health Service, which is in dire straits. Can the Minister tell us, as far as he can, what the next steps will be over the next few days to ensure the restoration of the institutions?

Finally, I think that he would agree that we do not want to see all this happening again. It has been two years since we have had an Assembly. Before that, Sinn Féin brought down the Assembly. Is there a case for the parties in Northern Ireland, helped by the Government, devising a system to ensure that greater stability would occur in Northern Ireland in years to come?

For the moment, I wish the new and first nationalist First Minister of Northern Ireland, the Deputy First Minister and all Members of the Assembly well. It is a good week for Northern Ireland and for the country.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating yesterday’s Statement and commend him and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for their dedication and hard work in all their efforts to secure the deal that we are discussing today.

Northern Ireland is in a significantly more hopeful place as a result of this deal, which is greatly to be welcomed. After two years of political vacuum in Northern Ireland, the most important thing is that the Executive and the Assembly can get back to work as soon as possible, for there is so much to do. It is tragic that so much time has been wasted when so much has needed to be done. It has been nearly two years, during which time the healthcare system, education and public services in Northern Ireland have reached crisis point. But, as Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party, said on Tuesday:

“The priority now is where we go from here, not where we have been”.


I am glad that the deal has very much been welcomed in Northern Ireland, at least by the majority. There is a palpable sense of relief, and a recognition across the board that it is surely better for local people to be taking these decisions and, if necessary, pushing for further improvements and further reforms. Once the Assembly and the Executive are fully functioning again, Northern Ireland will have a stronger voice in both Westminster and Brussels. It is also welcome that the funds, the £3.3 billion, can now be released, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said. It is the Executive who will be best placed to decide how this money should be used.

The stalemate of the last two years has served nobody well. Indeed, the stop-start nature of devolution in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement has meant that Northern Ireland has been held back from reaching its full potential. It is unacceptable that, for five of the last seven years, there has been no functioning Executive.

But people and businesses in Northern Ireland need to know that this deal will last. As was said many times during debate on the Statement in the House of Commons yesterday, there needs to be a bedrock of stability so that it is no longer possible for one party to collapse the Executive. Like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I would be grateful if the Minister can confirm that he will, with the parties in Northern Ireland, examine ways to ensure that the stability of the institutions can be better protected in future.

As has been said, particularly in the House of Commons, this is now an opportunity for Northern Ireland: an opportunity to ensure that it is a place where people want to invest and where families want to choose to come and live. There is so much potential, and I sincerely hope that, this time, this agreement will last.

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for their support for the deal reached by my right honourable friend that was announced yesterday. In response to the noble Lord, he talked about this as a considerable achievement. He knows from his own experience as the negotiator of strand 1 back in 1998, just how difficult and challenging these issues are and can be. I am grateful for what he said and will of course pass on his congratulations to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, which I know will be greatly appreciated.

The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, also mentioned the contribution of civil servants. I completely agree that they have done a fantastic job in Northern Ireland, keeping public services running and, in many respects, really holding society together there. In addition, I put on record my thanks to officials, both in the Northern Ireland Office and the Cabinet Office, for the outstanding work that they have done in pulling together the deal that was announced yesterday.

I also place on record that I agree with the noble Lord about the contribution of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. I have known Jeffrey since 1988, believe it or not, so we go back some way. As the Secretary of State mentioned in his Statement, he has always been a true unionist, committed to making Northern Ireland a safer, more prosperous and better place. I really do commend the contribution that Sir Jeffrey has made to this outcome.

The noble Lord referred to the guarantees around the internal market, which are of course very important. Northern Ireland’s biggest trading partner by far is Great Britain, which is by far the most important market for Northern Ireland. We are confident that, as a result of what has been agreed now, there will be a smooth flow of goods circulating throughout the United Kingdom. He was right to highlight the benefits that will bring to Northern Ireland, alongside the privileged access that it will retain for goods moving into the EU single market. That should be a huge selling point for the newly restored Executive in working with the UK Government to try to attract foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland. It really gives Northern Ireland some unique advantages that are not available anywhere else.

The noble Lord referred to the strand 2 bodies. As noble Lords throughout the House are aware, the Belfast agreement is a three-stranded agreement, all of which strands are interlocking and dependent upon each other. Without strand 1 in operation, the Assembly and Executive, the strand 2 bodies have not been able to function properly or to realise the hopes and objectives for them that were contained in the 1998 agreement. With the restoration of the Assembly and Executive, those strand 2 bodies will start to function fully again, along with the strand 3 bodies. For the past couple of years, there have been notable absentees from the meetings of the British-Irish Council, for example, with two empty chairs for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. I look forward to the next meeting of the BIC and seeing the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister taking their rightful places in those bodies.

The noble Lord also made reference to the financial package and strongly welcomed the sums available. It is a significant package, alongside a new Barnett formula. Going forward, the formula will be subject to negotiation between the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Executive. What has been agreed around that is very positive for Northern Ireland and will significantly help an incoming Executive to meet some of the very real challenges the noble Lord raised, and which I fully acknowledge, in the coming months and years.

The noble Lord asked about the next steps. The next step is for the parties to approach the Speaker to recall the Northern Ireland Assembly. The first item of business will be to elect a new Speaker. Thereafter it will be to appoint a new First and Deputy First Minister. The next step is to run the d’Hondt system, which the noble Lord knows only too well, in order to allocate the Ministers from each of the parties who are eligible to take up places in the Executive. Hopefully, that will all happen very swiftly. I cannot give a precise timetable. One of the reasons the other place is debating the statutory instruments today, only one day after publication, is as a clear signal of our intent that this moves as quickly as possible, and we get the institutions back up and running in the shortest possible timeframe.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked about trying to introduce reforms and measures to promote greater resilience of the institutions and to prevent a similar scenario—one party pulling down the institutions—happening again. We all recall that, between 2017 and 2020, Sinn Féin did that and of course we are familiar with the history of the past two years. It is something that, at some point, I personally think we will need to look at, and the Government have always made it very clear that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has never been set in tablets of stone. There is the capacity for it to evolve, as it did at St Andrews in 2006, and changes were made after the Stormont House agreement in 2014. We have always been open, as I have said on a number of occasions in this House, to sensible reforms, so long as those reforms command cross-community support and are consistent with the underlying and enduring principles of the Belfast agreement.

The priority for now must be to get the institutions back up and running, established and functioning, supported by the financial package, to finalise the programme for government and then to start tackling the really tough challenges the Executive face. Thereafter, I think there is room for a sensible debate about how we can possibly prevent this happening in future. For now, we should focus on re-establishing the institutions and getting things up and running with the support of the UK Government and, where appropriate under the three-stranded approach, the Irish Government. They will be supporting and helping the Executive to get stuck into the challenges and to start building that brighter, stronger, more prosperous future for Northern Ireland, which I have always maintained, along with my right honourable friend, is the surest foundation for strengthening our union.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

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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.

Northern Ireland: Industrial Action

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Wednesday 17th January 2024

(5 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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I am grateful to my noble friend. I entirely agree with his first points about the Windsor Framework. From everything I have seen, the framework appears to be working very well. On his second point, I am afraid I part company in that I see no evidence to support the proposition he made. In respect of reform, we have always made it clear that we will look at any sensible reforms to the system that are consistent with the underlying principles of the Belfast agreement.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, the continued lack of an Assembly and Executive is now reaching crisis point, and the people of Northern Ireland are being badly let down. Clearly, as the parties in Northern Ireland have said, the funds should be released. Further to his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, can the Minister confirm that, in the forthcoming legislation to deal with the situation in Northern Ireland, nothing should be left off the table in terms of reform?

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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I am very grateful to the noble Baroness. I repeat what I said to my noble friend Lord Clarke of Nottingham; sensible reforms will always be considered so long as they can command widespread consent across the community and are consistent with the principles of the agreement. On the legislation, I am afraid I cannot pre-empt what my right honourable friend is likely to announce next week. All I can do is urge the noble Baroness to contain her excitement for a few days.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O’Loan (CB)
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My Lords, Clause 42, to which this amendment applies, deprives those who suffered loss or damage as a consequence of the Troubles of the ability to bring or continue any civil action after 17 May 2022—some 14 months ago. A relatively small group of UK citizens from every part of these islands is to be deprived of their rights not only to bring a civil action but to inquests and to full human rights-compliant criminal investigations by virtue of the restrictions still placed on the investigative powers of the ICRIR by this Bill.

The long title of the Bill is amended by one of the amendments. It describes the purposes of the Bill as being to

“promote reconciliation by establishing an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, limiting criminal investigations, legal proceedings, inquests and police complaints”.

The purpose of the Bill is clearly stated, but at no stage has the Minister explained how it is expected that limiting criminal investigations, legal proceedings, inquests and the investigation of police complaints will promote reconciliation. I am unaware of anyone who thinks it will.

The real purpose of the Bill is to protect the Government from having to pay damages for those occasions on which investigation reveals that the state acted in breach of its duties to protect life. At its simplest, if somebody was murdered, and the state had prior knowledge and did not intervene or prevented proper investigation—and we know that these things happened right across our communities—a cause of action is disclosed. Now, in addition to the provisions of these amendments, there will be no right of action for bereaved and grieving families. That is the first purpose: to stop civil actions. The second purpose is to control access to information so that some people will never be able to prove what happened in cases involving state actors. The third purpose is to protect those veterans—they are few—both police and military, who may have committed the greatest crime, that of murder, from being subjected to due process. This Bill, as everyone has said, has been roundly and consistently condemned in the UK, by the Council of Europe, by the European High Commissioner for Human Rights, by the UN and by many others. It is a terrible breach of our international legal obligations.

Internment without trial was introduced on 9 August 1971 and continued until 5 December 1975. About 340 people were detained initially, often just scooped up by the Army because of their age and where they lived. About 100 were released within 48 hours; 17 people died in the rioting which followed and an estimated 7,000 Catholics had to flee their homes when they were attacked by loyalists. Initially, internment was carried out under regulations made under the special powers Act. All those detained were from the Catholic community. The interpretation of the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order 1972—introduced that November—by the Supreme Court is the subject of today’s government amendment. Overall, 1,981 people were detained without trial, 1,874 from the Catholic/nationalist/republican community and 107 from the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community. That began in 1973. It is generally accepted that internment without trial was a major recruiting agent for the IRA, and the Government said decades ago that they would never introduce it again.

It is also generally accepted in Northern Ireland and elsewhere that Gerry Adams was in the IRA and that he served on the IRA army council. As one who, as a young woman, lost my baby when I was caught in an IRA bomb explosion, I fully understand the revulsion at the idea that he and others who were involved in violence might now be able to recover even more money as a consequence of the Supreme Court decision in this case. A briefing on the Supreme Court judgment by Richard Ekins KC and Sir Stephen Laws is helpful in defining the justification for and the parameters of the amendment. Ekins and Laws describe how the process worked. Detention began with the making of an interim custody order, which was an exercise of a power conferred by the 1972 order on the Secretary of State. The order specified that only the Secretary of State, a Minister of State or an Under-Secretary of State could sign an interim custody order.

They went on to say that

“detention under the 1972 Order only began with the making of an interim custody order. Detention was only able to continue for more than 28 days when the Chief Constable had referred the matter to the Commissioner (a former judge or senior lawyer) who would consider the matter afresh. If the Commissioner was satisfied that the person in question was involved in terrorism, the Commissioner would make a detention order. When Mr Adams escaped from custody, his continuing detention, beyond the period of the interim custody order, had been authorised by a Commissioner who had made a fresh decision”.

This amendment seeks only to address the consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision. It is not about the merits of detention without trial. It is about whether the Carltona principles should have applied to prevent the Secretary of State having to consider each application personally. It is also about stopping the significant number of civil actions lodged after the Supreme Court judgment.

Internment without trial should never have happened, but this amendment is not about that. For that reason, while I will not oppose these amendments, I look forward to the Minister giving the assurance sought by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, as to the extent of the exercise of powers anticipated to make secondary legislation under the powers conferred by the Bill.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I broadly welcome these government amendments. This is a complex matter, as the interventions this afternoon have illustrated, but I am glad that the Minister has managed to find a solution that is, broadly speaking, acceptable to all, subject to the comments made for the record by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.

I have only one question for the Minister regarding these Third Reading amendments. I assume that the Northern Ireland Department of Justice was also consulted and that it is happy with these proposals. Could the Minister perhaps confirm that that is the case?

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, this is the third occasion on which your Lordships have had the opportunity to discuss what has become an increasingly complex issue. I am delighted that it is probably the last as, should there be any more, it would get even more complicated.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that Lord Kerr was a very eminent judge. Many of us remember him and the great work that he did. However, there has clearly been a problem with this particular judgment, and the principle of junior Ministers signing orders on behalf of the Secretary of State, even if it applied all those years ago, must be sustained. So I very much look forward to what the Minister has to say in response to this short debate. We will not be opposing this amendment.

Baroness Hoey Portrait Baroness Hoey (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, when I asked a question about this some six months ago I was assured that something would be done to sort it—I think that was the word used—so I am very pleased to support the amendment in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Faulks and Lord Godson. I am pleased and waiting to hear what the Minister will say, because I am very hopeful now that this will get sorted and that we will not have to have a vote on it. It would be good if he were able to make it very clear that the legislation will definitely be amended, so that we get the result before Third Reading. I think it is useful to remind noble Lords; the noble Lord, Lord Howell, gave a very clear view of what things were like back in 1972.

In the judgment, Lord Kerr said that the law said that it had “to appear” to the Secretary of State that the person in question was suspected of organising terrorism. Ironically, the case of Gerry Adams was one where it could unquestionably have appeared to Mr Whitelaw that a custody order was appropriate; his personal consideration was just not recorded in the archives. I am sure that the Secretary of State knew, rather than suspected, that Adams was a key figure, because he had him flown over for negotiations with the IRA at Cheyne Walk in 1972, a year earlier. Lord Kerr also said that Mr Whitelaw should have been able to sign all such custody orders, as

“there was no evidence that this would place an impossible burden”

on him or be “unduly onerous”, given that Merlyn Rees, his Labour successor from March 1974, managed to.

I think this is a reflection of an unhistoric assertion lacking context, given the terrible violence outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, of 1972 and 1973, let alone the logistics involving Ministers, one of whom had to be in England and one in Belfast. Furthermore, it took no account of the differing political circumstances involving Secretary of State Merlyn Rees, who was very keen to end internment and sought to minimise the number of orders being placed in front of him. In fact, internment ended a year later.

Noble Lords should also remember that the Supreme Court President, Lord Reed of Allermuir, in effect supported a correction when he spoke to the House’s Constitution Committee in March 2021. There he said, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Howell:

“I cannot say very much about the particular case because I did not sit on it myself. Lord Kerr wrote the judgment. The Lord Chief Justice and some other justices were sitting with him. I am well aware that it is a controversial judgment ... I really cannot remember the details of the case. From what you say, it sounds like a wayward judgment, in which case it will be put right in another case”.


I believe that this amendment and what the Government are now going to do are a valuable substitute for such another case at the Supreme Court, which could otherwise take years to appear.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, when this amendment was introduced at a very late stage in Committee, I expressed concern that this is a complicated matter and should be examined in greater detail. While the amendment is focused on the specifics of the Supreme Court case in 2020, it is clear that the judgment might well have wider implications for the Carltona principle and therefore also for wider government.

I remain firmly of the view that this important matter requires deep and careful consideration; indeed, longer consideration than we have had between Committee and now. I think that is what the Minister said in his earlier meetings with the noble Lord, Lord Faulks. Will the Minister commit to taking this matter away for further discussions within and across government? Perhaps most importantly, will he endeavour to update this House on the decision well in advance of Third Reading?

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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I associate myself with the Minister in remembering those who suffered violence over the last number of years and thank him for the way in which he has engaged with Members of this House and beyond. His amendments generally improve the Bill, but I suspect that he will find this evening that they do not go far enough for those with fundamental objections to the Bill. We shall certainly not vote against them today or Monday, as they do, as I say, improve it.

The Minister made reference to Sir Declan Morgan, who has been appointed as the chief commissioner designate—a clever move on the Government’s part, because he is a man of huge integrity, experience and expertise. There is some doubt as to whether it should have been announced quite this early, but I understand why the Government decided so to do.

I am sure that this evening we will hear a number of important points on the many issues, from immunity to prosecution and other matters. I hope that the House will be able to give consideration briefly to those points.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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I echo a lot of the comments that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has just made, and the Minister’s comments about remembering. It is very important that we never forget all those impacted and killed by the Troubles.

I too start by thanking the Minister for the constructive way in which he has engaged on the Bill, given the constraints that he faces at the other end of the building. He has always shown himself willing to meet and discuss, and I know that he has dedicated a considerable amount of time to the Bill, including during the summer holiday last year, perhaps. For that we thank him.

Again, like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, most of us feel that, although the amendments are to a very large degree to be welcomed, they are not game-changing; they have not really changed the Bill to the extent to which many of us would have liked to see. I am sure that we will return to that issue at later stages, but this group is a positive example of amendments that these Benches are happy to welcome.

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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I am very grateful to the noble Lord and noble Baroness for their support and kind words, and I hope that this year I might actually get some time off during the summer. That might be the triumph of hope over experience, but you never know. I take great heart from the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, when he describes the Government as having made a “clever move”. I welcome that, and I am very grateful. The amendments that I have proposed will strengthen the independence of the commission.

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Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Portrait Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown (DUP)
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My Lords, I know my noble friend Lord Weir touched on this, but Amendment 3 requires the ICRIR to

“have regard to the general interests of persons affected by Troubles-related deaths and serious injuries”.

I ask the Minister to clarify: have the Government failed conclusively to rule out perpetrators, including those who died or were injured at their own hand, from the scope of this duty which is now being placed upon the ICRIR? It would certainly be wrong that those who have been perpetrators and died or were injured at their own hand should be placed on the same level as those who are innocent victims.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I place on record my thanks to the Minister for introducing Amendments 85 and 86, which, in essence, as he has said, are the same amendments that I tabled in Committee and were recommended by the victims’ commissioner, Ian Jeffers. It is a very welcome and common-sense change to the Bill, allowing for individuals affected by death and other harmful conduct to provide and publish personal statements to the ICRIR. I am very grateful that he is willing to make this small but important change, notwithstanding my earlier comments about the bigger picture of the Bill, including, in particular, immunity and other issues that we will get to later this evening. I will be very interested to hear the Minister’s response to the important points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, about the potential conflict between reconciliation and investigation.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I agree with every word spoken by every Member of this House who has taken part in this very brief debate. First, I thank the Minister for certainly improving what was there before—there is no question about that—but it does not, of course, go to the heart of the issue of why it is that victims, victims groups and the victims’ commissioner are probably the people most opposed to the Bill as a whole. Putting the word “reconciliation” in it does not mean to say it makes it any better, because, as my noble friend Lady Ritchie and the noble Lord, Lord Weir, said, there is a vagueness about the definition, so it does not actually mean very much at the end of the day.

What is purposeful, I think, is the fact that there are going to be victim statements. I think that is a distinct improvement, but ultimately the reason that victims and their families and their advocates in Northern Ireland are opposed to the Bill is because of the proposals on immunity, which we will reach a little later this evening. However, the Opposition will not oppose the amendments.

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Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Portrait Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown (DUP)
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My Lords, Amendment 61A stands in the name of my noble friends Lord Dodds, Lord Weir and Lord Morrow. The explanatory statement says:

“This amendment would require an individual to be disengaged from activity which would be reasonably regarded as precluding reconciliation in order to be eligible for immunity from prosecution”.


There is another amendment in the name of my noble friends that is in a similar vein.

I draw attention to something that my noble friend Lord Dodds has already mentioned. There is a question in my mind concerning the legislation as it stands. My noble friend mentioned the late Joe Clarke, one of the hooded men who received an apology on his deathbed from the chief constable of the PSNI over his treatment while he was interned in 1971. He was one of 14 men who claimed that they were subjected to state-sanctioned torture. They all claim innocence. However, at his funeral the other day, Mr Clarke was buried with what appeared to be full so-called IRA military honours: his coffin was draped in the tricolour and he was escorted by men and women in some sort of uniform—white gloves, black ties and white shirts. I believe that this is reserved for members of the IRA, particularly those who have carried out what is known as IRA active service—and we know what that really means.

To deepen the plot, one of those carrying Clarke’s coffin in that military-style uniform was none other than a man who had been arrested and imprisoned over the murder of two soldiers at the Massereene barracks in Antrim during the time when I was the local Member of Parliament for that constituency. That person and his doctors told the court that he had only three to four years to live at most. Strangely, 14 years later, he is the picture of health, miraculously cured and carrying an IRA man’s coffin. Actually, that person is a neighbour of mine. I ask the Minister this: would the likes of Mr Shivers receive immunity or an amnesty under the present legislation as it stands, without the amendments suggested by my noble friends Lord Dodds, Lord Weir and Lord Morrow?

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, the sheer number and scope of amendments in this group should serve as a clear indication to the Government that there continue to be grave concerns about the proposals for immunity set out in Clause 18. I have added my name on behalf of these Benches to Amendment 66, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and also signed by the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Loan and Lady Ritchie, which would remove Clause 18.

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Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, this has been an interesting short debate. These Benches fully support Amendment 31, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and signed by the noble Lords, Lord Blair and Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan; if it is pushed to a vote on Monday, we will certainly support it. As other noble Lords have spelled out so clearly—perhaps not the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, who has reservations, but certainly the noble Lord, Lord Blair, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie—the Operation Kenova model, with investigations to criminal justice standards, has been proven to work and should and could provide an effective alternative to the approach being adopted by the Government. I still hope that the Government will move further in this direction and support at least the spirit of Amendment 31. If they will not, it would be very useful to hear why from the Minister in his concluding remarks.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I very much appreciate the amendments put forward by the Government in this group, which are a genuine attempt to improve the Bill. In particular, Amendments 30 and 33 make it clear that the commission must act in a way that is consistent with the Human Rights Act and therefore the European Convention on Human Rights. The problem is that the Government need to ensure that the people who take these matters very seriously are convinced, when it is said that the legislation is compliant, that it actually is. That is a job of work that the Minister must undertake in the weeks ahead.

I very much support Amendment 31 in the name of my noble friend Lord Hain, ably moved by my noble friend Lady Ritchie. I have met Jon Boutcher on a number of occasions and have been deeply impressed by his work and by him personally. Operation Kenova has achieved a very compassionate and efficient way of dealing with these issues, not just in a couple of cases but in anything up to 200, as the noble Lord, Lord Blair, has said. I hope the Government seriously consider my noble friend’s amendment on this issue, because it would be more generally acceptable than the present system.

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Baroness Hoey Portrait Baroness Hoey (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I support the Government’s intention to set a deadline on the issue of inquests. I oppose Amendment 110 because it is a—“wrecking amendment” is probably wrong because there are lots of things about this Bill that we all want to wreck, but the reality is that, without incorporating all inquests into the new body at some stage, it might as well not exist. We would see what I have mentioned before: lawfare would recommence with a vengeance at a very high cost, forcing reinvestigations that, if we are honest, would never occur or be enabled to occur here in England.

As it is, the ICRIR is already showing signs of becoming just a one-stop shop for reinvestigations of historic deaths currently or previously undertaken, as I mentioned on the previous amendment, by the PSNI’s legacy investigations branch, HET, the Police Ombudsman, Strasbourg, public or judicial inquiry, civil suits or inquests. The 50 or so currently outstanding promised inquests are almost all reopened ones that the courts, the DPP or the Attorney-General have decided were inadequate previously. Inquests were apparently being reopened according to two loose criteria: first, the usual one where collusion was alleged, such as Glenanne and Finucane; and, secondly, where the deceased was a terrorist but the command and control arrangements of the security forces were in question—in other words, once again only the state was being reinvestigated.

At the height of the Troubles, as we know, evidence gathering was next to impossible for fear of another death, so inquests tended to be brief, especially for the 700 murdered soldiers. It is worth remembering too that in the case of the IRA’s 1974 Birmingham bombing there was never an inquest.

Reopening has been granted when some new information has come to light after inspection of, for example, new files in the National Archives at Kew. Quite often the new information is not that compelling and, increasingly, judicial reviews do not succeed when the killings occurred up to 50 years ago. Judges accept that memories fade and become unreliable.

The Human Rights Act and thus the ECHR Article 2 procedure, much quoted in recent days by the Secretary of State, do not require deaths to be reinvestigated prior to its commencement in 2000. The Supreme Court has of course suggested that the cut-off date should be a decade earlier but certainly not the 1970s, so I think His Majesty’s Government are absolutely right on this and I oppose Amendment 110.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I shall speak in favour of Amendment 110, to which I have added my name. It would remove Clause 40 from the Bill and would have the effect of leaving the inquest system as it currently stands. I shall be extremely brief because the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Loan and Lady Ritchie, have made the case so powerfully in favour of the amendment.

The Minister will know that the victims’ commissioner, Ian Jeffers, is deeply concerned that removing the current inquest system would be an additional blow to families who have already waited decades for an inquest, and it is just not clear how and when the ICRIR will work to deal with them. Does the Minister agree that, when an inquest has begun and the preparatory work has been done, it seems inefficient and impractical to start a new process with new personnel?

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, after immunity, this part of the Bill is the most disliked, criticised and disapproved of in Northern Ireland. I understand why: because we will have inquests abolished, civil action banned and investigations not allowed to go on. That means the rule of law in Northern Ireland is being denied to the people, because of the decision of the Government to impose this Bill upon them.

I am not saying that there might not be occasions when all those things should happen. The problem is that, as in the case of immunity, effectively the Government have no Northern Ireland mandate for what they are doing. You can abolish the rule of law in some forms in a country only if the people are behind it. If the people’s representatives from all the political parties in Northern Ireland, and through all the churches and the organisations representing human rights there, and the victims’ commissioner for Northern Ireland, are opposed to this serious deflection from the rule of law then the only way that it can happen is if there is consensus.

The Good Friday agreement and the St Andrews agreement were based on consensus. The Stormont House agreement was based on consensus; the clue is in the name. The Minister shakes his head at that, but he knows that it would be a good basis for action if the Stormont House agreement were put forward. He had a very good Secretary of State at the time, but Johnson sacked him—maybe because he was too good. The issue, at the end of the day, is that you cannot impose these draconian changes in how the judicial and legal system works unless they have a legitimacy among the people who will have to live with them. That applies to the whole Bill but particularly to this provision. The reason why I support Amendment 110 is, again, because it gives the House of Commons the opportunity, if it is passed here, to have another look at it—a deep look at why this aspect of the Bill is so unpopular.

I cannot get my mind or head around why the Government are so stubborn on this. They can do what they like in Britain because they have a mandate, for another year, in the House of Commons. But, more than anybody else in the Government, the Minister knows that it is different in Northern Ireland and that these enormous changes cannot be made effective unless there is some sort of consensus. I do not for one second believe that the Government are wrong in seeking and trying to find a solution. The problem is that, in this case, they simply have not.