All 3 Lord Trimble contributions to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019

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Wed 10th Jul 2019
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
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2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Mon 15th Jul 2019
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
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Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Wed 17th Jul 2019
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
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Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 10th July 2019

(4 years, 10 months ago)

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Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, this is a Bill that we have seen many times before and we understand the reasons for it.

I am sorry; I intended to start by paying tribute to Sir Anthony Hart, who I knew well in my university days. He made a very significant contribution to the law in Northern Ireland and I would like to join those who have offered condolences to his family.

The Minister was quite brief in opening this debate, and I can understand why. Like the rest of us, he is not really clear about what has happened or what is likely to happen. We are in a very unusual situation. Unfortunately, this House and the other place have been going steadily downhill for the last year or two. We now see the sort of shenanigans that are going to be introduced here, the way they were in the other place. We can expect Amendment 14—the one that the Government won—to be reintroduced here. It will be interesting to see what the approach will be in this House. I would not like to predict what the situation will be.

I understand a lot of the chagrin that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, feels about this matter. However, he was sailing close at some points to blaming the Government for this shambles, when it was not the Government’s fault. They tried to prevent some of the amendments that were tabled and were successful in some areas. We do not know what the Government are going to do next week; I am sure that the Minister cannot give us an answer at the moment. However, we see that the processes in this House are being hijacked, partly by the clique in the Commons which is trying to prevent us leaving the European Union. That is not something of which they should be proud. There are also other issues which have been mentioned with regard to abortion and same-sex marriage. Those are delicate matters. I have found myself taking a particular position with regard to same-sex marriage, which was forced upon me when my elder daughter got married to her girlfriend. I cannot change that, and I cannot now go around saying that I am opposed to it because I acquiesced to it. There we are.

With regard to abortion, I find it rather curious. I know that there are strong feelings on that issue as well. People say the law this and the law that, and various campaigns are trying to urge Parliament to extend legislation to Northern Ireland, but I find that people are not looking closely at what the law is. The law on abortion in Northern Ireland is partly on statute but most of it flows from common law, from the Bourne case of 1939. People say that abortion is banned in Northern Ireland. It is not; abortion is legal in Northern Ireland. I see heads shaking on the other side of the Chamber but they are wrongly shaken. I think there is only one situation that is not covered. There is a gap with regard to foetal abnormality, and I think that is the only point where the law in Northern Ireland diverges from the law here.

I mentioned the Bourne case. I decided that I would go and look at it again because it has been many years since I have read it. In 1939, a 14 year-old girl who had been raped by five soldiers and became pregnant afterwards was obviously distraught about her situation. She found a surgeon in a London hospital who was prepared to conduct an abortion, and then the legal system came into effect. The legal decision that flows from that—it actually flows from Section 59 of the 1861 Act—is the beginning of the law on abortion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The judge’s interpretation of that, having regard also to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, was that a person who procures an abortion in good faith for the purpose of preserving the life of the woman is not guilty of an offence. When we talk about preserving the life of the woman, the key part of the judgment states that,

“those words ought to be construed in a reasonable sense, and, if the doctor is of the opinion, on reasonable grounds and with adequate knowledge, that the probable consequence of the continuance of the pregnancy will be to make the woman a physical or mental wreck … the doctor who, under those circumstances and in that honest belief, operates, is operating for the purpose of preserving the life of the mother”.

That is the law in Northern Ireland. It is also the guts of the Abortion Act 1967. The key passage in the provisions in that Act, setting out the circumstances where abortion can be carried out, is,

“and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman”.

Those are virtually the same terms as in the Bourne case. Those who want a campaign to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland are talking only about whether the law is going to be enshrined in legislation or enshrined in case law; the substance is the same. So there is no necessity for what the Commons did yesterday, and what they did has not advanced the case that some persons obviously want to advance. As I heard from behind me, the way that the Commons behaved is going to make it more difficult to deal with the situation.

I have dealt with two of the matters for which the proceedings have been hijacked. The other, of course, comes back to Amendment 14, as I mentioned, which purports to be something that is going to block a no-deal departure from the EU. We do not know what is going to happen. Amendment 14 was not actually carried last night but the elements around that amendment are there. Indeed, Dominic Grieve said in last night’s debate that without Amendment 14 he thinks he can still achieve the same objective, but we will see as and when that happens.

I want to say something about this no deal business. I do not know whether people have a good, clear, evidence-based reason to support the contention that leaving the European Union on WTO terms is a disaster. I do not see any evidence for that at all. We will see when the time comes. I think that a few days after we leave the European Union there will be a lot of red faces in this building, but I will leave it at that.

There may be something beneficial in all this. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to when Sinn Féin pulled the plug on the Northern Ireland Assembly. At that time, one of the factors in its mind was that it thought it could exploit Brexit in order to get an electoral boost in southern Ireland. It has not worked. A very encouraging, little-known fact is that Sinn Féin lost half its seats in the local elections in the south just a short time ago. In the opinion polls, it is going down sharply. The Irish Taoiseach also thought he could gain politically from causing an issue over Brexit, but the situation is not looking so good. Consequentially, getting Brexit finished, and finished quickly, will help people to focus on other serious issues and there will be a better chance of restoring the Assembly in that context. We should hope for that to come quickly and smoothly and then we can all settle down to do some serious work.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill Debate

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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 15th July 2019

(4 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I rise to support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Cormack for the reasons that he gave in moving it. It is very wise to give more time for this. I notice that he is suggesting 13 January instead of 31 October, which gives a couple of extra months, but I rather like the idea of putting down 10 April and reminding people that it is the anniversary of the making of that agreement, which, when it was mooted, was agreed to by referenda with substantial majorities. The effect of that has not gone away. It is generally assumed in Northern Ireland that that agreement provides the basis for the local Administration.

Unfortunately, others are trying to undermine the agreement. Indeed, the worst of those trying to undermine the agreement—thankfully, at the moment it looks as though they will be unsuccessful—are the European Union, the Irish Government and our own Government. That is precisely what they are doing. I shall not go into great detail, although I can do so. I have been scribbling on this subject and something might emerge shortly, so I shall not start at this stage. We are not into a filibuster yet but, if the need comes, I am prepared to engage at some length on what I have just said. Putting in the date that reminds people of the agreement might, I hope, be an incentive to those who should be working to restore the Administration so that we have no further need of this legislation. We know that, because of the length of the hiatus in the institutions, the hope is not all that great, but it is worth reminding people of this and perhaps giving somebody’s conscience a prick ever so slightly on the subject.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O’Loan (CB)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who, as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement. I pay tribute to him for his tireless work for peace in Northern Ireland over so many years.

I am pleased to support the amendment to the Bill moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The final, real purpose of the Bill is to prevent an election to enable more time for the talks to take place. All these dates will do is to make further accommodation. The amendment is not inconsistent with the main purpose of the Bill.

I spoke at Second Reading, and since then thousands have told me of their concern. I will speak more of that later. If the Bill could pass to give effect to its original purpose, it would be better to extend the period because, apart from anything else, at present Northern Ireland is on holiday. For example, I was trying to call the Minister through the Northern Ireland Office this morning, but all the numbers seemed not to work. I could not get anyone, and my suspicion is that this is a public holiday in Northern Ireland and that is why I was unable to get him. That tells you something about rushing a Bill that will make such a profound constitutional change through your Lordships’ House this week. The talks seem to have been very difficult, but they are being conducted by the Government. They have been facilitated and enabled by the Government, and the Minister has told us how committed they are to these talks and the future creation of a Northern Ireland Executive, which would allow the Assembly to go back and give us a functioning Government. They are vital to our future. They are, in the context of Brexit, critical to the peace process and to the peace, stability and economic prosperity of the United Kingdom. I am very pleased to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord again brings his experience to the debate. We cannot keep funding futility, however that manages to manifest itself. There will be consequences if we cannot move these matters forward, and they need to be felt by those who are affected directly inside those rooms. I will take away the noble Lord’s point and think it over.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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My apologies for interrupting the Minister, but following on from what has just been said about salaries for people who are not doing what they should be doing, could that principle not be extended to the other end of the building? It would have a significant effect if it were, because for a certain party that does not send its Members to carry out their tasks in this building, that money is then diffused into the funding of that organisation as a whole. It would bring significant pressure to bear if we were to apply that principle to the other end of the building, and we would see quite significant movement as a result.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord takes me into even deeper waters—and we are only in the first half hour of what may well be a long day. I understand the point he makes, of course; I appreciate exactly what he is saying. But that may be a discussion for another time. If he will allow me, I shall return to the amendment in hand.

With some regret, I say to my noble friend Lord Cormack that I hope he will understand that I am asking him to withdraw the amendment, not because it is not necessary to have time, but because we need to balance out that time—the carrot—with the stick of a deadline. We need to make sure that we are making progress to allow for the necessary secondary steps—an election to take place and so forth—in good time. Otherwise we will reach ever more frequent deadlines and anniversaries relating to the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland, which the people of Northern Ireland can, unfortunately, little bear.

--- Later in debate ---
What will happen at the end of the day if direct rule has to be imposed? I easily guess we would then fall in line with what our colleagues in another place said, but I believe passionately that, if we move too precipitately, we endanger the very thing we are all protesting that we want to safeguard: namely, devolution. On that basis, and with those strong feelings, I commend these amendments to your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.
Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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My Lords, looking at Amendment 10, the key thing I see is,

“offering a consultation with the people of Northern Ireland if no Executive has been established”,

by the date mentioned. It is really indefensible that we sit here acquiescing in the continued non-existence of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

I understand why my noble friend has put this amendment forward. I am slightly uncomfortable that the amendment is a bit passive—

“if no Executive has been established”.

One should really do more than just say, “We will do this if it happens, but we don’t appear to be doing much else to keep things going”. I know there is a talks process under way from time to time, and sometimes I hear people saying that they are very close and that things are going well. I very much hope that that is the case, but we have been here before and had negotiations that were getting very close—then some gentlemen whom we rarely see or hear anything from send their messages in and the landscape shifts considerably.

In an earlier debate, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred to the fact that this is not just a matter of interest to Her Majesty’s Government but that another Government are involved. That brings back to mind the agreement we made nearly 22 years ago. That agreement had two elements to it: the multi-party talks, which happily came to a positive conclusion, and the agreement between Her Majesty’s Government and the Irish Government, which finds expression in legislation passed by this House. In that very short agreement, which I think had only two or three clauses, the first clause—the important one—contained a solemn undertaking by Her Majesty’s Government and the Irish Government to support the product of the multi-party talks; in other words, to support the steps we took towards the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and to support the Assembly itself.

I draw the attention of Her Majesty’s Government to the fact that they have an obligation to support the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not think they are discharging that obligation. It is true that you have to proceed via agreement with the parties, but one must go further than saying, “We’ll leave it up to the parties”. That is not supporting it.

Since this unhappy situation came about, a number of Members of this House have made proposals from time to time about what could be done. I did that several times myself until I started wondering what the point was of trying to work up something that gives another way forward if there is no sign of any support coming from the sources from which it should come. Unfortunately, where there is an obligation on Her Majesty’s Government to support an Assembly—and, by extension, to support those trying to bring it about, even though that means going a roundabout route and applying pressure to various parties—there should really be more consideration from them about their obligation and how and when they will implement it.

Amendment 18 says that regulations,

“must be introduced if no Executive has been established”.

I know it is a bit premature to try to work out at this stage what the form of those regulations would be, but, if there is a legal obligation on the Government to introduce some regulations at that point, that is to be welcomed, as it might help accelerate the rather anaemic processes that are going on at the moment.

These are suggestions to think about, but I bring the Committee’s attention back to the fact that that agreement was made on the basis that there would be good faith from the Government in implementing it. They responded by making a solemn undertaking. I now invite them to fulfil it.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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My Lords, I cannot endorse the words of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, too strongly. He is absolutely right. Consultation is essential if Northern Ireland is to have any sense that there was integrity in the intentions of the Government in what they have done in the past.

As I have told noble Lords, over the weekend I received 15,000 signatories to my letter to the Prime Minister; I keep getting texts, and the number seems to be rising by a thousand an hour. There is another side to this that I do not think noble Lords are aware of. Given that Northern Ireland voted not to leave the European Union, if we move towards Brexit and we simultaneously move to direct rule, many of the unionists in Northern Ireland—my noble colleagues may contradict me—would reject that. They will want a Northern Ireland Assembly; we are capable of governing ourselves in these devolved matters.

I know from what is written that the nationalist people of Northern Ireland would reject it utterly. For them, it would be the end of the Good Friday agreement; it would be the end of support from the British Government for the institutions of the Good Friday agreement; it would imperil our peace process. Equally, it would create a construct within which the reunification of Ireland would become rapidly more likely. If Northern Ireland is not allowed to govern itself and space is not made for the talks which need to take place, direct rule, which has been a very bad thing for Northern Ireland, will inevitably follow.

I say to noble Lords with a heavy heart that, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said on Wednesday, they are walking on very sacred ground as they contemplate these issues. It is not just about abortion; it is about the whole devolved settlement, the integrity of government and the future peace and prosperity of all four parts of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill Debate

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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 17th July 2019

(4 years, 10 months ago)

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Lord Eames Portrait Lord Eames
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My Lords, throughout this evening, in all our debates and the important decisions that have been taken according to our custom and the way we work, there has been, like in a theatre, a backcloth to everything we have done. I believe that even at this late stage, referring to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, we need to put on record what has been clearly exposed tonight: that we have been rushing through matters of supreme importance to the country from which I come. Our representatives feel very deeply that the questions being asked tonight, although they cover very important issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, were not what we were really questioning. What we were really questioning tonight was the theory of devolution, which from its infancy was geared to give us, within the United Kingdom, the local relevance and integrity that we hoped would emerge. So, in supporting the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, at this late stage, I suggest to the long-suffering Minister that he take back that which I refer to as the tapestry, which in fact surrounds everything we have experienced in the Chamber today. What is being asked about devolution, and how can we correct it?

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, turning back to look at the Bill, one should remember what its purpose is. It was to put provisions in place to enable an Executive to be formed. Under existing legislation, there is a period of time in which that has to happen. It is then a question of prolonging that time. Essentially, the Bill was providing more time for this.

There was no surprise about that. This is the fourth or fifth time that there has been a need to provide legislation. People knew that this was going to come and, from the way in which the talks are taking place between the parties in Northern Ireland, they would have had a fair idea of the likelihood of carrying this legislation. There was nothing urgent about it. Nothing surprising had to be done. There was the possibility of putting the legislation into motion at an earlier stage. If someone then came along and tried to hang additional things on it, there would be time to consider them properly.

We have not had the chance to do that. When one considers the matters that have been looked at today, and compares that to what would have happened if, instead of being a Bill relating to Northern Ireland, it was a Bill relating to Scotland or England, would it have been handled with the same speed, without looking carefully at what the problems might be? There was no serious concentration. We had a Committee stage, but it did not function as a normal Committee, as we can see by the limited number of things that were mentioned.

It was not proper legislation and there was no justification for handling it in that way. With more time, we might have had better debates and been able to tease out some of the things that were causing even the Minister difficulty to work out. Noble Lords will notice that what I am saying has been said repeatedly by Committees of this House: this procedure is flawed and ought not to be followed again. I wonder if there will be any change or if we will just plough on, hoping that an Assembly or Executive are formed and scrambling at the last minute to put them together.

In the course of this debate, noble Lords have referred to devolution and their desire to see it restored in Northern Ireland. If devolution does function again, it would mean that our 90 Assembly Members would be able to return to Stormont to discuss and debate things and consider what they are doing. However, they cannot do that as things stand. Assembly Members themselves cannot form the Administration. Legislation would need to be enacted if Westminster wanted immediately to bring the Assembly into existence for some limited purpose. Some of us have suggested doing that, but I have not seen any willingness on the part of the Government to encourage the Assembly to function even on limited matters.

A very limited consultation is suggested here. It says that the Secretary of State must,

“consult individually members of the Northern Ireland Assembly”.

That is set out in a very bare way. Nobody has talked about the details of the consultation or how thorough it would be. It simply refers to speaking to Members of the Assembly and to considering and reporting on their views. That is a very small step to take in finding things out. I do not know what the outcome will be. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spoke vigorously earlier about the changes of views that he has detected. If that is the case, no doubt it would be reflected in the views that Assembly Members would give to the Secretary of State if she phoned them up and asked them what they think. It would be an easy step to take and it might help to restore some of those Members’ self-respect. People do not appreciate just how traumatic their situation is: they were elected to serve in an Assembly but are unable to do so, and they have nothing else besides general activities to turn their hand to because they have no way of influencing the powers that be.

This is a modest measure to try to get a degree of consultation. Of course, the Minister spoke earlier about consultations on particular matters being conducted over several months. In that timescale, he could easily get in touch with the 90 Assembly Members, see what their views are and let us know. That would be a good step forward, coming as it does at the end of the evening.