All 1 Lord Trimble contributions to the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017

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Tue 14th Nov 2017
Northern Ireland Budget Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords

Northern Ireland Budget Bill Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Northern Ireland Budget Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 14th November 2017

(6 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bew, who always interests one and regularly draws attention to things that should have been done. One thing that should have been done this evening—for which I have to apologise to the Minister—is to pay more attention to the annunciator in Fielden House. I ended up running across the road, but at least had some exercise while doing it. I should also join in welcoming the Minister to this House and to this issue.

I also want to thank the Secretary of State for holding the meeting at lunchtime today, attended by a dozen or so Members of your Lordships’ House who have a particular interest in this issue. I found that meeting very helpful. It was a fully frank discussion, and I would like to suggest to the Minister that it would be a good idea to do it on a regular basis. The request is self-serving in that respect.

The Secretary of State has held back with this legislation to the very last minute. If it is not enacted now, it is only a matter of days before the departments run out of money. It has to go through. The Secretary of State was quite right to hold it back to the last minute. The Bill is based on the last Budget drawn up in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which gives it a degree—a limited degree—of democratic legitimacy. However, that legitimacy will run out early next year. We are even now more than a year away from the last Budget drawn up in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Once we go into another year, it is very difficult to see how things can be sustained in that sense.

If we do not get an agreement and see progress in that respect, under the existing legislation the Secretary of State will have to name a date for an Assembly election. When we get to more than a year away, that will almost certainly be the point at which he has to take a decision on whether we go for an election. I do not feel that the best thing to do would be to have an election in the first few months of next year. It is the wrong time of the year; it is also the wrong time in the political climate, because the Brexit issue is not likely to have been resolved before then and is more likely to be causing more difficulties. I cannot think of a worse context in which to have an election.

However, if there is not an election, the Secretary of State will have to bring forward some legislation. That legislation might provide for direct rule or for some other things to be done. I know that the Government are reluctant to have direct rule—that has been said regularly. I have regularly indicated my agreement with that, because it is not a healthy state of affairs—direct rule was never a healthy state of affairs and it was always our desire to see it replaced by a local Administration. However, when I look at the present situation, I must say that I am coming more to the view that it would be better to go for direct rule if the matter cannot be resolved. I would like some other course to be taken—I have mentioned that in the past.

If we are to have another way of doing it, I would like to make a suggestion respectfully to the DUP. I know that you have worked hard in these talks and that positions have moved and positions have been tabled, to no good. Could I suggest that it is worth while to make another major effort? What I would suggest to you is to think of a good, even a generous, offer to Sinn Fein and to put it transparently on the table—not pieces of paper within the talks but put there so that the public will know exactly what is on offer to Sinn Fein. In that context, I would like to see the Secretary of State say to Sinn Fein that if you do not take up this offer, then I am going to do something. What I would like to see him do in that situation is what was suggested earlier: recall the Assembly and let it operate on the Welsh model, without an Executive—corporate Assembly, as it is known. That is worth looking at and, because it operated in Wales for a number of years, it is not without precedent.

The question then arises, what would Sinn Fein do? Would it boycott it? It would be difficult for it to boycott an Assembly. Would it go in and try to wreck it? Very probably. It would be an unpleasant experience for people who were in there, but it might just be worth while going through it, because if it is there either refusing to take part or taking part in a way of causing constant difficulty, then it is undermining essential public services and at some point the penny must drop with its electorate that this is not the way to do things. At the end of the day, that is about the only recourse we will have, and I think that the Secretary of State should adopt it; or he may wish to look in a different direction, which might be to change the procedures for forming an Executive. What we have at the moment is not what was in the 1998 agreement: it has come in, and I know the reasons it came in but I am not going to go into that. Changes were made and changes could be made again. Maybe a different way of doing things could be arrived at. That would at least be something worth doing.

We have to remember that Sinn Fein will oppose anything that is not in its interest. Our experience was that it never took decisions that were difficult for itself unless it was under pressure. You will not get it there by the quality of your argument but only by adding to it some degree of pressure. What that is, I will leave for the moment, but showing that the Government have the determination to go ahead without it is in itself pressure. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, will remember when Tony Blair first came to Belfast shortly after he was elected Prime Minister and one of the key phrases in the statement he addressed to the republican movement was that the train is going to move—the settlement train is going to move—and I want to see you on that train, but it will move without you if you do not come. That is the sort of language that we could well do with at the moment.

I want to touch briefly on Brexit at this point. It is relevant; it has been mentioned; and there has been a lot of discussion about the problems on the Irish border, which have come into focus and gone out again. My eye was caught by yesterday’s debate in the other place. Owen Smith, the Member of Parliament—successor to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy—referred to the issues on the Irish border and continued:

“I agree with the EU that one potential outcome that would solve the problem would be if Northern Ireland remained in the customs union and had some sort of special arrangement. That is a very interesting idea that we ought to consider”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/11/17; col. 82.]

Terms such as “special arrangements” have floated around in the past, but in the last wee while some hints of information have drifted into the public arena and pointed towards what some have called “the Hong Kong model” of a special regime for Northern Ireland. I think it is in the minds of some people that we should have a special regime whereby Northern Ireland is still part of the European Union for purposes such as, say, the customs union and other matters—I have even heard the common agricultural policy mentioned in that context—but on other matters still part of the United Kingdom. I doubt whether that is workable, but whether it is workable or not it is absolutely unacceptable. It is to disrupt the union. I know that David Davis has been quite firm on this, but I think that the Government are going to have to sit very hard on it, because it looks as though there is going to be an attempt to push the notion, and that would be a very big mistake, and obviously contrary to the procedures in the Belfast agreement. I conclude on that point, and thank you very much.