Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
I have to say that I am a little bit hopeful in a way I have not been for some time. The Northern Ireland Office seemed over a period to do less and less, remember less and less, and have less and less experience than at many previous times. The return of the noble Lord, Lord Caine, to the Northern Ireland Office fills me with a degree of optimism, because he has a very substantial, long-standing experience that few others have, either at the political or the official level. I hope that he will bring that experience to bear. I have no doubt that he will, and I hope that the rest of those in the office will listen to him.
Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I support, in general terms, the amendments that have been proposed by my noble friends and by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. They carry me back to past events. I was the first First Minister when Seamus and I were elected. We both regarded it as very important that we should be elected jointly, because that would carry to the public the image and the reality that we were going to work together and with due regard to the views of the various parties. Consequently, I am very much in favour of returning to that. In the circumstances, I would be pleasantly surprised if the Government did so, and it would be a good thing for them to do.

I have some reservations about the references in Amendment 3 to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister as “Joint First Ministers”. They have the same powers, but the difference in terminology is a matter of who goes first into a room and who speaks first. It is a formal matter. The Lib Dems’ representative in the Commons may not realise that precedence matters. I leave you to reflect on that. Precedence matters, and speaking first makes a difference, even if you are speaking on the same subjects.

Some of the other things that have been mentioned in passing here reminded me of when we were in office later and could see that the opinions of the electorate were shifting. We were thinking about the position of Sinn Féin, so we quietly sent a little message to Sinn Féin saying that it should reflect on whether it could provide a Deputy First Minister who would be acceptable to the public. I notice that it has followed that in the way in which it has handled things in the Assembly.

As to the points from the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, about what might happen on or after an election, just wait and see. Do not jump to conclusions in the way you are at the moment, because it is not particularly useful.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise only briefly on this issue to concur with some of the comments that have been made. As the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said, there is always some hesitation on the part of those who were not there to revisit some of these issues. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, made a point about those who compromised and found that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was not perfect. Perfection can often be the enemy of any progress at all, so I have enormous admiration for those who were able to compromise to reach what has been a long-standing and impressive agreement. Along with others who have spoken, I put on record my tributes to those who were mentioned.

I saw the Minister wince slightly when the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, talked about how much more confidence he has that there may be some progress on various issues now that the Minister is there. My only comment is: no pressure there then. I could tell him not to worry about it, because this is an issue where people want to and can find agreement, and there is always good will in the discussions. I remember, during direct rule, when I took over from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that he was nothing but courteous and helpful to me when I was making my way as a Minister in Northern Ireland.

We are very supportive of what the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie, and the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Rogan, are trying to achieve with these amendments. There is value to a more consensual approach to this, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, outlined, but I suspect the Minister will say that this discussion is for outside this Bill, because the Bill is to progress issues in the NDNA. Nevertheless, I think there is an opportunity for the Minister to reflect on the comments that have been made. Even if they are not for this Bill, there could and should be discussions on them to see if further progress can be made and if there are benefits to taking such an approach.

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Lord Dodds of Duncairn Portrait Lord Dodds of Duncairn (DUP)
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My Lords, this is an important issue, and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has set out very clearly the reasoning that lies behind the amendment.

I will come on to the remuneration point in a moment but, as someone who benefited politically from being able to sit in the House of Commons and in the Assembly, as did most Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland at that time—I think all but one MP was also a Member of the Assembly and some held ministerial office, as indeed I did—I know that it provided a bridge between what was happening here in Westminster and Whitehall and the Northern Ireland Assembly. That meant the Assembly was not deprived—I would not necessarily say of “talent”—of experience and knowledge of the political process, certainly of the negotiations that had led up to the settlement. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, as Speaker, was also a Member of this place, which, again, provided heft and authority to the office of Speaker.

On the remuneration point, it needs to be borne in mind that Members of Parliament who were also Members of the Assembly received only one-third of their Assembly pay and, indeed, in the end received no salary whatever for being in the Assembly, so it was not particularly beneficial from a remuneration point of view to sit in both places. It also has to be borne in mind—not to rehearse the arguments about the issue because that has now been settled—that at every election the electorate had an opportunity to make their decision, in the full knowledge of the mandates that people held, about whether they thought a person was suitable to be a Member of Parliament or a Member of the Assembly. In most cases, the electorate made their decision very firmly.

We are at the point where we accept that the principle you should be either a Member of Parliament or a Member of a devolved assembly is now well established and I am not seeking to reverse that, but what the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, is seeking to do is to address this hard edge so that we have a transition to enable that flow of membership to happen, but not in a way that creates unintended consequences, to bring us in Northern Ireland into line certainly with Scotland and to a large extent with Wales.

I think this is a sensible amendment. On the point that it is not part of the NDNA agreement, it is not, but this provision about how so-called double-jobbing should end was part of the Conservative manifesto in 2010 and was implemented in 2014. The speedy implementation of manifesto commitments was once again on display. That was beyond the NDNA. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has set out very clearly that this is something that needs to be addressed and this Bill is a good vehicle in which to do it.

If the Minister is minded to deploy the argument that this Bill is about the NDNA only and nothing else, I say gently to him that this is not how the Government have approached other issues. They have on occasion moved, and are currently considering moving, on issues and legislating on issues that do not have agreement among the parties in Northern Ireland. One thinks first of the timing of the bringing forward of the cultural package under NDNA, which is entirely a matter for the devolved Assembly. It is nothing to do with Westminster. It is a matter for the Assembly, yet the Government have indicated that they are minded to legislate on it here without any agreement on the timing; I shall not going to go into the substance of it, as it is a different matter. Secondly, on abortion, whatever one’s views may be on the issue, it is clearly an entirely devolved matter. There is no agreement on that issue among the parties in Northern Ireland or in the Assembly, yet the Government are going to legislate on it. Indeed, they have legislated on it. If the Government are going to use the argument that these things have to be done by agreement, that they are going to change things only by agreement and that they will not do anything that is against the agreement of the parties in Northern Ireland, that needs to be consistent.

No doubt when the Minister comes to speak, he will claim credit for the provisions against double-jobbing because he was instrumental in that matter at that time. The reasons why it was done are fully understood in the context of the time, but this amendment would remedy a gap in how it is implemented—that is the important thing—and provide for a proper transition period.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, having heard what has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Dodds, I think this is a very sensible amendment and I hope it will be accepted by the Government.

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, I also accept this amendment and declare an interest, in that I am a former MP and Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who served in both for a short time. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, that this amendment would prevent a cliff edge from happening, because those who are Members of the Assembly and of Parliament—and many of my colleagues were a Member of Parliament and then became a Member of the Assembly—brought with them a knowledge of legislative procedure. The Northern Ireland Assembly was very different from councils, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said. It was about bringing forward and scrutinising legislation so, in the early days, it was important to have people of experience there.

I am opposed to double-jobbing, but this amendment brings a transitional phase that would help the situation. I recall an election count for the Assembly in 2016, when my colleague Colin McGrath, who had been a member of Newry, Mourne and Down council, was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The chief executive of the council arrived at the same time as Colin McGrath was elected and asked for his letter of resignation and his computer to be handed over there and then. Whereupon Colin McGrath said, “That indicated that you thought I was going to be elected and it was very august of you to think that. But I am not in a position to do either of those things this evening. You will get them on Monday morning”.

What currently exists gives officials an upper hand, of which people may not have been aware, to execute their responsibilities and feel mighty important. I think there is a case for this amendment, in that it provides for the transitional phase, and allows for that essential knowledge to be carried through and for people to bed down while they transfer to their new situation in a fully pledged way. Then it allows for their replacements to be selected and take their place in the Assembly. It is all done not according to a list system, as it was originally, but from internal systems within parties. We are undergoing one in South Down at the minute, and they can cause consternation among friends and colleagues by creating unnecessary rivalry.

It is important that people concentrate on issues, legislation, scrutiny and investigation, rather than who is going to replace who. That is not good politics, in the truest sense of the word, and is not about service and delivery. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, would make sure of continuity in transition, and of concentration on legislation and the issues that matter to people and on which they expect their elected representatives to deliver for them.

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Lord Dodds of Duncairn Portrait Lord Dodds of Duncairn (DUP)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and to speak in support of this amendment, which is also in my name, because this issue goes to the heart of the political crisis that currently afflicts Northern Ireland.

We are debating a Bill which in a way—I suppose, ironically—arises out of the previous crisis in Northern Ireland. We have had a series of such Bills over the years. Noble Lords on the Labour Front Bench will recall that when their party was in office it too brought forward from time to time various Bills concerning Northern Ireland, which not only dealt with the operation of the Assembly and the institutions but sought to legislate on things such as legacy and other issues which we are still grappling with today. That shows that many of the issues are still to be resolved and this is a work in progress. Many people who felt that, once we had the Belfast agreement of 1998 or subsequent agreements, everything was fine have been disillusioned of that by events. One of the problems has been that, instead of adhering to agreements that have been entered into, there have been efforts to undermine the principle of consent which is at the heart of the Belfast agreement as amended by the St Andrews agreement. This is what we are dealing with in this amendment.

I totally accept, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said, that the Minister has had very little time to consider this matter—that goes for other noble Lords as well—so we clearly understand that this is a matter that we will have to consider over the coming days and, no doubt, at a later stage of the Bill. However, I emphasise that it is a matter of urgency. As things stand, the protocol poses a danger to the union. The noble Baroness alluded to the court action currently under way—not just to findings in the High Court but to some of the Government’s own lawyers’ submissions, which are troubling and worrying for unionists in Northern Ireland, where they have argued that sections of the Act of Union, particularly Section 6, are suspended, in effect, by the withdrawal Act. That is an incredible position for a Conservative and Unionist Government to find themselves arguing for in the courts; it really is quite staggering. Whether it is today or another day, this issue of the protocol needs to be addressed soon. At the heart of it is the issue of democratic consent.

Earlier in the debate on other clauses we discussed the importance of the principle of consent and the assertion of its primacy, as well as issues concerning returning things to the way they were in the 1998 agreement. What was at the heart of the 1998 agreement but the principle of consent and the idea that there should be cross-community support in the Assembly for every key decision? As the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, alluded to, that is explicitly referred to in paragraph 5(d) of strand 1 of the Belfast agreement. We therefore have a situation, for all the reasons we know, that every key, major decision made in the Northern Ireland Assembly is either a cross-community vote or susceptible of being turned into one. That was agreed not by us but by those parties who put their hands to the Belfast agreement. In the amendments that were made in St Andrews we made some improvements to the overall structure, but that was the fundamental agreement that was made.

There is only one key vote, one important decision—probably the most important one of all—which cannot now be a cross-community vote. That is the vote in 2024 on whether the Northern Ireland protocol should continue to apply; in other words, whether all the EU laws on manufactured goods, agri-foods, VAT, state aid, and so on—those matters covered by Articles 5 to 10 of the Northern Ireland protocol—should continue to apply in Northern Ireland and to its people. Those laws were made without any final decision being susceptible of being made by anyone in the Northern Ireland Assembly or at Westminster. They were made in Brussels, not necessarily—or, rather, certainly not—in the interests of Northern Ireland. They will have been made necessarily in the interests of those who made them. I do not object to that; that is perfectly understandable. However, the fact that we are then subjected to them even if they disadvantage us is an outrageous proposition in a 21st-century, modern democracy, and it would certainly not be tolerated in Scotland, Wales or any part of England for a second. It is certainly not taking back control.

The decision in 2024 is offensive in its own right because it should already have been made—it should have been made prior to this coming into force. In 2024 that decision is then to be made by a majority vote, so it is not a cross-community vote and it cannot be turned into one. That was done in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (Democratic Consent Process) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020. One of the most significant changes to the structure of the Assembly and the principle of consent was made in subordinate legislation, in the regulations that I have just described, not by primary legislation, in an Act of Parliament, but unilaterally by the Government here in Parliament, making a fundamental change to the way in which the Northern Ireland Assembly takes decisions. Again, there was no vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly on such a matter, only one which was made here unilaterally.

The significance of that should not be underestimated. The Government’s argument was that this is not a devolved matter. Of course, the reality is that if it is not a devolved matter, there should not be a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly at all. If it is not a devolved matter, it is a vote for Parliament. By giving the vote to the Assembly, they then decided to change the voting mechanism to ensure that one outcome would be agreed. That, on top of everything else regarding the protocol, has rightly exercised unionists of all parties, backgrounds and descriptions in Northern Ireland.

These amendments seek to restore—as we heard earlier in some of the arguments put forward regarding other amendments—what the original agreement and the 1998 Act said, and to restore the principle of consent on a cross-community basis for all key decisions. If done in a timely way, they would go some way towards alleviating the current crisis and perhaps avoiding what is coming down the road. As I said at Second Reading, it is simply unsustainable for people to expect that the institutions will just operate as normal while the east-west relationship has been trashed, which is strand 3 of the agreement, as well as strand 1 through the changes that were made to the consent principle and the mechanism regarding agreement.

I understand the difficulties today for the Minister regarding the late notice and being able to examine the amendments in detail, but I urge him to take on board the heartfelt views, the real concerns and the matters of principle that are at the heart of them.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I think most people know that I am one of the parties, together with the noble Baroness opposite, who are pursuing these issues through the courts. Despite what has been said at first instance, I am quite confident that when we reach the end of this litigation we will be vindicated. However, that will take time.

At the same time, we hope that the Government, who have been in negotiation with the European Union for some time and I think are making some progress, will acknowledge that they have not yet made enough progress for us to be able to go back to normal life. Hopefully, this issue from 1924 or whenever it is will never arise, but if it does then the comments that the noble Lord opposite has made are very important. If, in a number of years’ time, we come to a vote on this issue where we are denied the procedures that we put in place in the Belfast agreement, that will not be acceptable. I say that very firmly and clearly.

What the Government have tried to do on this issue is not going to work. They cannot just try to slip this through and somehow hope that it will work out all right when the time comes. It was a bad mistake for them to eliminate cross-community voting on an issue that is of huge importance. In the agreement we were very conscious about making sure that all important issues would be decided by cross-community vote. To take that away from the people is not going to be acceptable. We have problems going on at the moment and I do not want to say anything to exacerbate them, but I will just say that the Government have got themselves into a hole. They should get out of that hole before it gets too big and overwhelms them.

Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow (DUP)
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My Lords, I wish to make a few brief remarks about this issue. Those who have spoken before me—the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lords, Lord Dodds and Lord Trimble—have articulated the situation. I say to the Government that they need to demonstrate clearly that they have not fallen out with devolution, because their actions in recent times are getting the message over to Northern Ireland that they are rather weary of devolution or no longer believe in it.

There is a crisis coming. Those of us who sit here want to avert it if we possibly can, but the Government are the ones who can really avert it. They have created it—that has been put very straight to them by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble—and only they can ensure that this crisis does not hit us in the face. Let it be clearly said and understood here today: it is on its way. It is in the making. It is almost here.

I will not say anything more, but I urge the Government to take note in particular of what the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lords, Lord Dodds and Lord Trimble, have said. There is an issue, and if it is not sorted quickly then I believe it will go beyond sorting.