Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord Dodds of Duncairn Portrait Lord Dodds of Duncairn (DUP)
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My Lords, it gives me enormous pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Weir of Ballyholme. I congratulate him on his maiden speech. We are fortunate that he delivered his first speech in your Lordships’ House on the subject of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, given his service, as we have heard, over 24 years as a long-standing Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend and I have a number of things in common. He is also a barrister, having been called to the Bar of Northern Ireland in 1992, some years after me, I have to say—many years after me, in fact. He was a member of the Northern Ireland Forum, along with me, which was elected in 1996 and which led to the talks and the Belfast agreement. Like me, he was elected to the first Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998. The major difference was that, at that time, he was a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. However, in 2002 he made the wise, sensible and courageous decision to join the ranks of the Democratic Unionist Party. He has played an important role in our party from that moment.

Indeed, my noble friend led the way in many respects by being the first Ulster Unionist Assembly Member to make that seminal change. He would be followed into the DUP from the Ulster Unionists two years later by another distinguished Member of your Lordships’ House, the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, and the current leader of our party in the other place, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. I well remember my noble friend coming to see me in our offices in the City Hall at around the start of 2002 to discuss that switch, and it gives me great pleasure to sit beside him and to follow him in speaking today in your Lordships’ House. In the 20 years since that moment, he has served first as a Member of the Assembly for North Down up until 2017 and then latterly as a Member for Strangford. He was also a member of North Down Borough Council from 2005 to 2015 and, as he mentioned, he has served twice as Minister of Education.

Shortly after taking office in 2020, he, like other Ministers in the devolved Government, faced the enormous challenges of the Covid pandemic. It is right to put on record that he strove valiantly during that time to put the interests of children first, and to endeavour to keep our schools open, so far as possible, for the education of our children, something which most people now acknowledge and accept should have been of an even greater priority across the United Kingdom during the pandemic. During his time in office, he also set up an expert panel to produce a report, A Fair Start, on educational underachievement among the most disadvantaged in Northern Ireland. It has produced a very far-reaching and long-sighted plan identifying key actions to support children from birth and throughout their early years, up to and including the time they start school. This is one of the most important pieces of work in recent years commissioned by the Department of Education. It will make a real difference—as I know, speaking from experience of my constituency of Belfast North, which I had the honour to represent—if properly implemented and resourced.

We are blessed to have my noble friend in our presence, in terms of his future membership of this House. He has been a person of honour, integrity and ability in his political life, in the Assembly and, as increasingly rare attributes in politics, he has exemplified loyalty, dedication to his principles and service to his constituents and party. I, for one, am truly delighted to see him in your Lordships’ House. I think he will make, as we have seen today, a considerable contribution to your Lordships’ deliberations in the years to come.

I turn to the Bill before your Lordships. Like others, I welcome, reluctantly, its contents: it is necessary but unfortunate. Although I know we have been through a number of iterations of government in recent months, it is clearly the case that had Governments under different Prime Ministers moved with greater alacrity to deal with the protocol issue, we would not be in the position we are in today.

I well remember that after the European Union decided to invoke Article 16 in order to put a vaccines border on the island of Ireland, to prevent vaccines coming to Northern Ireland at the start of the Covid pandemic, the then Prime Minister undertook that there would be action to deal with the protocol by March. We were then told that there would be action by the beginning of the summer, and instead we got a Command Paper in 2021 that set out the Government’s position. It was a welcome paper, but clearly only a set of proposals. We were then told that there would be a short, intensive period of negotiations starting in early September 2021, which would last three or four weeks and then, if the talks were successful, great; if not, action would be taken. Again, that was extended to Christmas, we had the resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and then we were into another period of delay.

During this time, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party warned that time was running out, because we could not have a situation where unionist Members of the legislative Assembly—all of whom, regardless of whether they are members of the DUP or other parties, are opposed to the protocol; they object to it and they voted against it—were required to implement that protocol. Despite the warnings and the passage of time, unfortunately nothing was done. That has led to the position that we now find ourselves in.

As other noble Lords have said already, we want to get devolution back and up and running as quickly as possible; that is the aim and objective of all sensitive people. But it cannot be sustainable if we continue with a position that sees the imposition of a protocol which trashes strand 3 of the Belfast agreement, as amended by the St Andrews agreement, and which also does great damage to strand 1 of that agreement. The fact of the matter is that not only are those strands impacted by the effects of the protocol but the principle of consent has been completely undermined. In the New Decade, New Approach document—which led to the restoration of the Assembly in January 2020—annexe A commits this Government to ensuring that Northern Ireland is a fully integral part of the UK internal market. So when we talk about the implementation of New Decade, New Approach commitments, we are still waiting for that to happen.

Although the protocol Bill has been introduced—it has had its Second Reading debate and Committee stage—we are still waiting for it to be progressed in the absence of any progress on the talks. I would be very interested in hearing from the Minister when he comes to wind up what the latest state of play is in relation to the talks, because, like others, I am concerned that we do not have very much time. This Bill institutes a six-week delay and then a further six weeks to the calling of an election, and that takes us to 19 January. It seems to me that there is going to have to be an enormous amount of heavy lifting in the negotiations and talks that have to take place between now and that date. There is no indication, as yet—though perhaps the Minister can indicate—of any change in the negotiation mandate of the European Union. There are aspects, even under the Government’s proposals in the July 2021 Command Paper, and in order to get to an agreement which will see devolution restored, that will require changes to the protocol itself. Therefore, it seems that time is very short indeed.

Although reference has been rightly made to concerns around giving civil servants powers such that are contained in this Bill—all of us regret seeing the situation where civil servants are put in that position—we have to remember that these are Northern Ireland civil servants. Even if the Assembly was restored overnight, under the current conditions it is not civil servants from Northern Ireland who would be making decisions; it would be civil servants in the Commission of the European Union proposing laws which apply to Northern Ireland. So when we talk about democratic deficit, concerns about the role of civil servants and unaccountability, it should be the concern of everyone—unionists, nationalists and non-aligned; anyone who is concerned about democracy, decision-making, accountability and transparency—that the powers over large swathes or our economy, agri-food, VAT, customs and so on should be made by people in Northern Ireland who are accountable to the electorate of Northern Ireland, or certainly accountable to someone in the United Kingdom at least. But that is not what we have at the present time.

We have the current court case that is going on in relation to the Acts of Union; judgment has been reserved in that, so I do not want to say a lot about it. However, the fact of the matter is that courts in Northern Ireland have ruled that there has been a breach of the Acts of Union as a result of the protocol—“subjugated” is the word that has been used.

For all these reasons, we find ourselves in a very difficult position, where it is unsustainable to imagine the operation of the institutions of the Belfast agreement, as amended by St Andrews, operating until the protocol is sorted out. As I have said, I look forward to hearing of progress on talks, but that seems to be some way off. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, mentioned talks among parties in Northern Ireland. That is all very well, and I have no particular objection to that, but this issue is not going to be solved by talks among parties in Northern Ireland, unlike previous situations. This is going to be solved either by decisions made here in this House through legislation or by talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom. I am not against having input from Northern Ireland parties, but this is not going to be solved by them sitting down together, because they cannot effect the changes that are needed. That is just a fact of life.

My final point is about the discussion that has emerged over recent weeks and months on changing the agreement to overcome some of the difficulties we have in relation to the operation of the devolved institutions, the north-south bodies, the east-west bodies and so on, and the idea that we can sort this out—as some people crudely put it—by simply removing vetoes or, more precisely, by excluding some people. Northern Ireland operates today, and has for 50 years, on the basis of cross-community consensus for decision-making. There is no such thing as majority rule in Northern Ireland, and there has not been since the early 1970s. The Belfast and St Andrews agreements were both predicated upon a sufficient consensus of unionists and nationalists coming to an arrangement which could carry both communities. Talk of moving on and excluding the unionists is the road to disaster, just as in the period between 2003 and 2007—as has been referred to—when the Assembly was down because Sinn Féin/IRA robbed the Northern Bank and was still out murdering people in the streets and yet wanted to be in government. The Government then rightly said, “No, that can’t happen; you have to decommission your weapons”, and eventually a form of decommissioning did take place, and eventually it had to support the police. It is unimaginable that people would be in the Government of Northern Ireland without supporting the police and doing these things, but that is what we were expected to accept at that time.

I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that, going forward, the principle of sufficient consensus—the requirement to have unionist and nationalist support—is absolutely essential both to the operation of institutions of governance in Northern Ireland and for any change there. Anything else would be a severe undermining of confidence and would do a great deal to set back any prospect of getting the devolved institutions restored.

We will obviously have a further opportunity to consider some more practical details when we come to Committee. The Minister looks surprised by that, but there may be some debate—who knows? I look forward to him responding to some of the issues I have raised so far.