Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. He talks enormous common sense, and that, of course, is what we want in a debate on Northern Ireland. But as your Lordships have witnessed over the last two and a half hours, it is not always easy when dealing with Northern Ireland issues. It never will be and it never was, but that does not mean to say that we cannot solve this issue. It is a question of how determined the political parties in Northern Ireland are and how determined the Government and the European Union are.

Before we come to that, I very much want to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Weir, who made a quite outstanding maiden speech. He made it, as your Lordships will recall, without a single note in front of him, with great fluency and, above all, with great experience and wisdom collected over the past 20-odd years, which is roughly the time I have known him. It is a great privilege to be able to speak in a debate with him. We all welcome him to our deliberations, not just on Northern Ireland but on wider issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Weir, rightly referred to his and my noble friend Lord Trimble. The noble Lord, Lord Godson, paid a very good tribute to our mutual friend; he also wrote an extremely good and unique biography of Lord Trimble, which is probably one of the finest blow-by-blow accounts of the negotiations in 1998. We all miss Lord Trimble. I have not had the opportunity properly over the past few months since he died to pay tribute to him. He was undoubtedly a giant—there is no question about that. All of us miss him personally. I miss him for the chats we used to have on classical music and all sorts of other things. It is perhaps unusual to think that a Welsh-Irish Catholic had such a unique relationship with a Northern Ireland Protestant, but it worked extremely well. We all miss him.

As many have said, we accept the Bill in front of us but we do not welcome it. There is nothing to welcome about it at all, because it reflects the dreadful situation in Northern Ireland at the moment, which has to be addressed; the Government have to do something about it. The effects of having no institutions in Northern Ireland—whether they be the Assembly or the Executive, or the north-south and east-west institutions—are really dramatic. I cannot quite agree that the institutions, or the lack of them, would make no difference in this current economic climate. I think they would. The fact that Wales has a Senedd that deals with the economic and social issues in front of the people of Wales, and that people in Scotland have the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, means that solutions to problems can be geared according to the way that they think the people of Wales and Scotland would react to them. Of course the people of Northern Ireland should expect representatives to be able to deal with these hugely significant issues in a very special Northern Ireland way. It is not right to say that the absence of the Assembly or the Executive is meaningless. It is hugely significant to the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland.

The issues raised by former heads of the Northern Ireland Civil Service over the last few weeks are valid. When, a couple of years past, we had to introduce legislation to allow civil servants to take decisions in the absence of elected representatives, it was a different world; now, the civil servants have to institute cuts and reductions in services. What mandate do they have to say that that should be cut there or that this should be cut here? That is a political decision that should be made by politicians, so I actually feel very sorry for them; they should not be put in that situation. But what is the option? Government has to go on, and that is the best but least worst option at the moment.

I agree entirely with the late Lord Trimble and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, when he says that the issue of consent is absolutely crucial to the success of the Good Friday agreement and the St Andrews agreement. There has to be consent across the board, but that also means the consent of nationalists too, whose views on the protocol are different from those of unionists, as my noble friend Lady Ritchie made absolutely clear. The violation of the agreement—which is the case with regard to the lack of consensus—is there, but so is the violation of the agreement in not having the institutions. There should be institutions in Northern Ireland because they were set up by the Good Friday agreement and the St Andrews agreement. That is equally a violation of those agreements. But telling each other that everybody is violating everybody else in a sense is not going to answer the problems that we have in front of us.

At the time of the creation of the protocol, which was drawn up as a result of the decision to leave the European Union, there was no functioning Executive or Assembly for the whole of that period. Had there been so, it would have been for the Northern Ireland politicians to resolve how to deal best with Brexit. As it was, the issue was rushed, it was hurried and it was poor, and it was not accepted. One of the reasons for that was that, on that occasion, Sinn Féin decided that it did not want to ensure that there was an Executive and Assembly in place. Had there been so, would it have been different? I think it would have been. That is why the issue of talks in parallel is important.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, rightly said that, ultimately, this is to be resolved only between the European Union on the one hand and the United Kingdom on the other. But I believe that the Irish Government could play a different role than they have in the past, by looking at the detail of any discussion. But that has to be done in parallel with negotiations or talks between the Northern Ireland parties on how to deal with the issue.

If there were a functioning Executive, they would not have been left out. They would have talked about it and they would have dealt with these issues. I still think that there is an opportunity for that to happen, but it cannot be done in seven weeks. That is absolutely the case. Frankly, I think it is a bit daft putting in a deadline of seven weeks; I just do not understand the logic behind it, at all. There is Christmas in between so, for at least two or probably three weeks, nothing—but nothing—will happen. Of course it will not—it is Christmas. These negotiations and talks will not really start until the second week in January. Are we really saying that two or three weeks will resolve the enormous issues which we have just been talking about for two and half hours? Of course not.

I urge the Government really to think a bit more about that 19 January deadline. Unless it is a clever ruse—which I do not think it is—I rather suspect that it needs to be rethought. George Mitchell put in a clever ruse: he said that 10 April 1998, Good Friday, would be the deadline and that, if we did not get there, he would go home to New York. It worked, but there was a much longer period in between, and—this is the point—there was a proper, more effective talks process. The problem we have had over the past nine months is that there has not been any process; there has not been a process nor any negotiations, as far as I know. It is all secret; that is what we are told. No one knows what is happening. We are told they are “technical”, but I do not have a clue what that means. What is a “technical negotiation”? I assume, though I do not know, that they are talking about electronic devices to work out how the protocol works, but I doubt that is what it is.

There is not sufficient transparency about the detail of the negotiations. You cannot have a blow-by-blow account of what happens every day, but there should be some idea of whether people are talking to each other. Are Ministers talking to each other? Are civil servants talking to each other? Are experts talking to each other? Are Northern Ireland people talking to other Northern Ireland people? We do not know; no one tells us.

There is an opportunity between now and Christmas to devise a plan and to decide on a timetable and a structure so that, when we all come back in the second week in January, we will know what exactly is being negotiated, where they are negotiating, who is doing the negotiating, and how it links with negotiations in Belfast and in Brussels and London. There is no evidence that anything has happened over the last eight months.

It must begin to happen properly; it must not drift. The great danger in Northern Ireland is always drift. You can drift into violence; you can drift into a vacuum; you can drift into a position where nobody wants the institutions any more because it is all too difficult, and so we all go back into our respective corners. That is not the answer. The answer is that there should be proper negotiations after Christmas, so that we all know what is happening, if not the detail. That 19 January deadline should be fiction. I also think that Parliament should be kept informed on a formal basis every couple of weeks about what exactly is happening.

I hope that, when he winds up, the Minister will be able to address some of those issues and some of the important matters that have been discussed in the last two and a half hours.