Northern Ireland Budget Bill
That the Bill be now read a second time.
As noble Lords will know, it is now nine months since there has been a properly functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland. Yet despite this Government’s efforts over the last 11 weeks, the parties have not yet reached an agreement that would enable a sustainable Executive to form. In bringing the parties together for this most recent phase of the political talks, we have sought to help the DUP and Sinn Fein to bridge the gap on a small number of outstanding matters, including language and culture. In doing so, we have worked closely with the Irish Government in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach. We remain prepared to bring forward legislation that would allow an Executive to be formed should the parties reach an agreement.
I share my right honourable friend the Secretary of State’s strong preference to see a restored Executive in Northern Ireland taking forward its own Budget. The Bill before us is one that we are taking forward with the utmost reluctance and only because there is no other choice available. We have been clear that the passage of legislation to set a Budget should not be a barrier to negotiations continuing, but the ongoing lack of agreement has had tangible consequences for people and public services in Northern Ireland. Without an Executive there has been no Budget, and without a Budget civil servants have been without political direction to take decisions on spending and public services in Northern Ireland.
I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which has demonstrated the utmost professionalism in protecting and preserving public services throughout these difficult times, but the powers it has been exercising have their limits. Under Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and Section 7 of the Government Resources and Accounts (Northern Ireland) Act 2001, they may issue cash and resources equal to only 95% of the totals authorised in the last financial year. These powers do not allow departments to use accruing resources, meaning that the resources available to departments are in reality significantly less than 95% of the previous year’s provision.
Noble Lords will recall that in Written Statements by my predecessors, the noble Lords, Lord Dunlop and Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, in April and July, the Government set out an indicative Budget position and a set of departmental allocations based on the advice of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The 19 July Statement said:
“The exercise of S59 powers cannot be sustained indefinitely”,
and warned that although we had not then reached that critical point, it was approaching. Those resource limits, in the absence of a Budget, are now fast approaching. Without further action there are manifest risks that the Northern Ireland Civil Service would simply begin to run out of resources by the end of this month. That would mean no funding available for public services, with all of the negative impacts that would accompany such a cliff edge. No Government could simply stand by and allow that to happen. That is why we need the Bill.
To be clear, this is a measure we have deferred for as long as possible. We wanted to see the parties reach an agreement and take a Budget through themselves. In the absence of agreement, the Bill is necessary to keep public services running in Northern Ireland and, while it is a government Bill, it is not a UK government Budget. It does not reflect the priorities or spending decisions of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or any other UK government Minister. Rather, it sets out the departmental allocations and ambits that have been recommended by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which, in turn, has sought as far as is possible to reflect the priorities of the previous Executive, albeit updated to reflect the changed circumstances as far as has been required. In short, it is the Budget that a returning Executive—had one been formed—would have been presented with. Taken as a whole, it represents a necessary measure, taken at the latest possible point, to secure public finances in Northern Ireland.
We should be absolutely clear that passing this Budget in Westminster does not mean a move to direct rule, any more than did this Parliament legislating to set a regional rate in April. Once the Budget is passed, the detailed decisions on how it is spent will be made by the Northern Ireland Civil Service. If the parties come together to form an Executive in the weeks ahead—as I am sure all noble Lords hope will be the case—those decisions would fall to them. Nothing we are doing today precludes talks from continuing and an agreement being reached.
I now turn briefly to the contents of this short but rather technical Bill. In short, it authorises Northern Ireland departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending on 31 March 2018. Clause 1 authorises the issue of £16.17 billion out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. The allocation levels for each Northern Ireland department and the other bodies in receipt of these funds are set out in Schedule 1, which also states the purposes for which these funds are to be used.
Clause 2 permits some temporary borrowing powers for cash management purposes. Clause 3 authorises the use of resources amounting to £18 billion in the year ending 31 March 2018 by the Northern Ireland departments and other bodies listed in Clause 3(2). These figures and those in Clause 1 supersede the allocations of cash and resources made by the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance up to the end of this month, under the powers I have already mentioned. Similarly to Clause 1, the breakdown between these departments and bodies and the purposes for the authorised use of resources under Clause 3 are set out in the Bill, in the first two columns of Schedule 2.
Clause 4 sets limits on the accruing resources, including both operating and non-operating accruing resources, in the current financial year. These sums relate to those which have already been voted by Parliament via Main Estimates, together with revenue generated locally within Northern Ireland. There is no new money in the Bill: there is simply the explicit authority to spend in full the monies that have already been allocated.
Ordinarily, the Bill would have been taken through the Assembly. As such, in Clause 5, a series of adaptations ensure that—once approved by both Houses in Westminster—the Bill will be treated as such, enabling Northern Ireland public finances to continue to function notwithstanding the absence of an Executive. Clause 6 repeals previous Assembly Budget Acts, relating to the financial years 2013-14 and 2014-15 respectively, which are no longer operative. Such repeals are regularly included in Assembly Budget Bills.
Alongside the introduction of the Bill in the other place yesterday, a set of estimates for the departments and bodies covered by the Budget Bill was laid before the House as a Command Paper. These estimates, which have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, set out the breakdown of the resource allocation in greater detail. As noble Lords may note, this is a different process from that which we might ordinarily see for estimates at Westminster, where the estimates document precedes the formal Budget legislation and is separately approved. That would also be the case at the Assembly. But in these unusual circumstances, the Bill provides that the laying of the Command Paper takes the place of an estimates document laid and approved before the Assembly, again to enable public finances to flow smoothly.
To aid the understanding of these Main Estimates and how the spending will break down, the Northern Ireland Civil Service has published a Budget briefing paper, which was published on the Department of Finance website on Monday morning. It is important to note that the Northern Ireland political parties have also been briefed on this Budget position.
As those clauses demonstrate, this is clearly an unusual Bill to be taken through the UK Parliament, marking as it does an approval by Parliament of spending in the devolved sphere. While being proportionate, the UK Government want to ensure that in the absence of an Assembly there can be appropriate scrutiny by Parliament of how the money it has voted is subsequently spent. In addition to the provision in the Bill for scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Audit Office of the Northern Ireland departments, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be writing to the Comptroller and Auditor-General for Northern Ireland asking for a copy of each of the NIAO audit and value for money reports produced after the Bill gains Royal Assent, which will contain the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s view on any shortcomings and his recommendations for improvement. The Secretary of State will ask the Northern Ireland Civil Service to make its responses to those reports available to him. Copies of these reports and correspondence will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses to allow scrutiny by all interested Members and committees.
I have already noted that the Bill deals solely with moneys already voted for by Parliament or raised within Northern Ireland. Those figures do not, though, secure the financial picture for the long term, where real challenges remain. There is a health service in significant need of transformation; there are further steps to take to build the truly connected infrastructure that can boost growth and prosperity throughout Northern Ireland; and there is a need to continue to deal with the legacy of the past. It was in recognition of those unique circumstances that the UK Government were prepared to make additional financial support available earlier this year, following the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative Party and the DUP. That agreement made it clear that we wanted to see that money made available to a restored Executive, which would decide on a cross-community basis how best to use the funding for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances cannot simply be ignored in the meantime, especially given the pressures that we have seen in the continued absence of an Executive. So in addition to the Bill, this Government will commit to making available the £50 million in the agreement for addressing immediate health and education pressures in this financial year. Those sums are not contained in the Bill, because they have not yet been voted by Parliament. If the Northern Ireland Administration confirm their wish to access them, they will be subject to the full authorisation of the UK Parliament, as with all sums discharged from the UK Consolidated Fund, via the estimates process in the new year. From there they will be transferred, along with other sums forming part of the Northern Ireland block grant, into the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund.
In the absence of an Executive, it would be for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which is bound by a range of equality and propriety duties, to make the decisions as to whether and how to take account of this funding for the benefit of the whole community. We want to see a restored Executive back in place and deciding on how the additional financial support can best be used for the benefit—I stress again—of the whole community. That remains the case now, as much as it ever was. We believe in devolution. We want to see locally elected politicians taking the strategic decisions about the future direction of their local areas.
In this context, I know the disappointment so many feel that despite the election more than eight months ago, there remains no functioning Assembly in which all those elected may serve. The Government understand the concerns that many have that full salaries continue to be paid to Assembly Members, despite this impasse, but we also recognise that many of those elected have been desperate to serve since March and have continued to provide valuable constituency functions in the meantime. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State told the House of Commons yesterday that he is seeking independent advice on the subject from Mr Trevor Reaney, a former Clerk of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Mr Reaney has agreed to provide an independent assessment of the case for action and the steps he would consider appropriate. He will report to the Secretary of State by 15 December and his advice will help inform the best way to proceed.
I very much hope that his work will not be needed. That is because I still hope that the parties can resolve their differences and an Executive can be formed—an Executive that will come together and take the strategic decisions needed on health transformation, educational reform and building world-class infrastructure to deliver a better future in Northern Ireland. That is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for and want to see. We will continue to work with the parties and support them in their efforts to reach a resolution for, together with the Irish Government, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors, and to the institutions they established.
It remains firmly in the interests of Northern Ireland to see devolved government restored and locally elected politicians making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland on key local matters. Northern Ireland and its people need a properly functioning and inclusive devolved Government, along with effective structures for co-operation—north-south and east-west. At the same time, the Government are ultimately responsible for good governance in Northern Ireland and we will do whatever is necessary to provide that. The Bill is a reminder of the underlying obligation that we will continue to uphold and I beg to move that it be read a second time.
My Lords, it is a great privilege and pleasure to be able to take part in this very important debate on a very small Bill. First, however, I welcome the Minister to his position. I think that this is the first speech he has made in the Chamber regarding Northern Ireland, and I think he did a great job of it, bearing in mind the circumstances in which it was delivered.
I shall touch on the issues affecting security in Northern Ireland that occurred over the weekend. It was particularly unfortunate that it occurred in Omagh, which has seen such terrible devastation in the past, and was so reminiscent of what occurred in Enniskillen. It shows that if there is no progress politically in Northern Ireland, vacuums are created that can sometimes be filled by men and women of violence.
Of course I support the Bill; we cannot do anything else. There has to be a Budget in Northern Ireland. I was for two years the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland and I understand the issues. We have to pay for public services, so I doubt whether there is anybody in this Chamber who would disagree with the fact that the Bill is necessary.
I think that there is an issue of accountability. This is a Westminster Parliament and a United Kingdom Government bringing in a Bill on a Budget for Northern Ireland without any political involvement from elected politicians in Northern Ireland so far as the Assembly is concerned. In his wind-up, will the Minister address the issues of accountability? He has mentioned the auditors and the Comptroller and Auditor-General, but they are not politicians. They are civil servants who have to draw up and then check their own budgets, in a sense, even though they are from a different department. If this continues for any length of time, there may be a role for, say, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland in the other place to look at the Budget or for Parliamentary Questions to be tabled in both Houses. I will be grateful for the Minister’s views on that.
I want to touch very briefly on the Secretary of State’s role in all this. He has done a very good job. He has been extremely committed, very sincere and very hard-working and has done his level best to try to bring, particularly, the two main parties in Northern Ireland together. No one can fault him on doing that, but I think that all would agree that today is a major turning point in events in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom for those of us who are interested in and committed to the future of Northern Ireland. It may not be de jure direct rule, but it may be de facto direct rule and that we are almost drifting towards direct rule and the end of devolution. That is a stark warning to everybody involved in Northern Ireland and to the political parties, particularly the two main parties. To be fair to the DUP, it has always supported devolution. It has been a devolutionist party. It wants devolution to occur in Northern Ireland, but it ought perhaps to look again at the issues, for example with regard to the Irish language Act.
I understand the issues—I come from an English-speaking part of Wales. Roughly 25% of the population of Wales speaks Welsh, but not in my area. Ironically, it was a Conservative Government who brought in the Welsh Language Act, and there were difficulties. But I hope that the DUP negotiators and those who have been involved in these matters can look towards another part of the United Kingdom with regard to how we deal with language issues and see that the union has not fallen apart because there was a Welsh Language Act in Wales.
So far as Sinn Fein is concerned, of course it is right to worry about parity of esteem for both sides in the community, but one has to ask whether it is worth dismantling the whole apparatus of government—the Executive, the Assembly and everything that goes with it—when you can have talks with the Government in parallel? Why on earth should we not have an Assembly and an Executive in Belfast who deal with health, education and all the other issues, but at the same time have parallel talks rather than bringing it all down?
Of course the other irony in this is that Sinn Fein—like other parties in Northern Ireland, but particularly Sinn Fein—has argued for the last 20 years or so that the Good Friday agreement is something by which all should abide. The Good Friday agreement includes the establishment of an Executive and an Assembly. I chaired the strand 1 talks, and it was an integral part of the whole agreement. When the people of Ireland, north and south, voted on that agreement, they voted on the establishment of an Executive and an Assembly. The sooner and the quicker those are up, the better. The Government need to perhaps have another look at the way in which they deal with the negotiations in the coming weeks, negotiations which I am sure will continue. My honourable friend Owen Smith, the shadow Secretary in the other place, has touched on some of the issues, and I would like to touch on just one or two before I conclude.
The first has been mentioned many times—I mentioned it to the Minister last week. There is a case for the Heads of Government—the Prime Minister and, where appropriate, the Taoiseach in Ireland—to involve themselves more directly in trying to solve this problem. Quite frankly, telephone calls are not good enough. Given the weight of the positions of Prime Ministers, actually going to Belfast, getting the parties together and talking to them would be hugely symbolic and hugely positive. It might not work—sometimes it did not. In Leeds Castle, that approach did not work. But with the Good Friday agreement, the St Andrews agreement and other agreements, it did. However, it simply has not been tried. That should be looked at really seriously from a Heads of Government point of view.
There should also be round-table, all-party talks in Northern Ireland. Yes, of course the DUP and Sinn Fein are the two biggest parties. Yes, of course they should be talking to each other all the time. But there are other parties in Northern Ireland too. There is a point to bringing them all together, because they can interact with each other, give ideas to each other and embarrass each other. They can get round a table and try to resolve these things. Again, could the Minister liaise with his right honourable friend the Secretary of State to try to achieve that?
There is also a case—it might take legislation but it would be worth it—for the Assembly itself actually to meet and deliberate. When I was Finance Minister, in 1999 I think it was, I went to the Assembly and presented the Budget. For a whole afternoon, Members of the Assembly from all parties were able to question me about the contents of that Budget. Why can they not do that on this occasion? Bringing together Members of the Assembly in Stormont means that they are again coming face to face and might be able to come up with a resolution of the issues that divide them.
Direct rule, if it comes back, will not be a solution but a tragedy. It is so very easy for it to return, but so very difficult then to restore devolved government. I was five years as a direct rule Minister in Northern Ireland, and although I thoroughly enjoyed it and appreciated the political role that I had, I was always embarrassed at being a direct rule Minister. I was a Member of Parliament for a Welsh valley constituency: not one person in Northern Ireland had voted for me, but I had to take decisions on health, schools, roads and local government. It is wrong. Those decisions should be taken by people in Northern Ireland elected by people in Northern Ireland, particularly given that in the House of Commons there are 650 Members of Parliament, but only 17 come from Northern Ireland, and not one nationalist voice is heard in that Chamber. That cannot be right when it comes to bringing the Government to account for what they do for Northern Ireland. I do not think direct rule is an answer.
Nor should this Bill be an excuse to give up. The issues that we had to consider 20 years ago—prisoner releases, the police, the courts, the establishment of institutions, relations between the north and south of Ireland, and many others—were resolved by talking. There is no reason in this wide world why we cannot do that again.
Overhanging all this mess is the business of Brexit and the fact that in only the past week or so, the European Union has again raised the issue of the border: a huge issue for everybody, north and south—and for all of us in the United Kingdom and in Europe generally. There is no voice from Northern Ireland. There is no Minister, not one person elected from Northern Ireland, who is addressing these issues. The sooner that is done, the better.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, with all the experience and wisdom that he brings, and that we had a fantastic example of this evening.
We on these Benches will support the Bill this evening. In the present circumstances, we believe that it is now essential. It is deeply disappointing that we have found ourselves in this position, but we recognise our obligation to the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that public services can continue. The Civil Service has been working on these assumptions, so the Bill is now required to give the legal authority to the full 100% cash flow needed, rather than the 95% allowed under Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
However, this position is far from ideal. The figures reflect the assumptions and the emerging Budget that the Sinn Fein Finance Minister was poised to recommend in January this year. However, there had already been delays to that Budget process, so a Budget had not been passed by the Assembly at the point of the Executive’s collapse in January. Moreover, the DUP and Sinn Fein had not agreed an economic strategy, a social strategy or an investment strategy for the financial year 2017-18.
I am deeply concerned that the Budget for next year—2018-19—will be considerably more challenging than the Budget before us today. Normally, a draft Budget would be going out for public consultation about now. Under normal circumstances, we would expect a draft Budget to be agreed early in 2018. I am concerned that it is now entirely possible that this process could drag on beyond the start of the new financial year.
As I said during the Statement last week, it has now been 10 months since the Executive collapsed. Northern Ireland is showing the strains of this political vacuum, with no one able to take the strategic and political decisions that are needed to grow the economy, ensure effective public services and build the shared society that we all want.
We are extremely concerned that in the absence of clarity about governance, there is no clear authority to put in place decisions and reforms that would allow money to be spent more efficiently and effectively. As a consequence, Northern Ireland is building up more and more problems for next year, and I am concerned about the impact that this will have on its people.
Setting a Budget is the most important act that any Government take. Robust public finances underpin the provision of services and economic growth. Public finance in Northern Ireland has needed significant reform for decades, and the financial difficulties predate the current crisis, but these continual crises are undermining public services and preventing Northern Ireland’s economy improving. The creation of a stable Budget is essential for Northern Ireland’s progress. The divided nature of Northern Ireland society exacerbates the economic problems that it faces. Major distortions remain within the provision of public services within the context of a divided society. This is not just a legacy issue; this pattern of duplication in service delivery continues to be replicated. Tackling the cost of division is by far the most significant long-term financial challenge facing Northern Ireland, but this is not being addressed in the current political vacuum.
Does the Minister recognise that, as well as the direct costs of policing civil disturbances and repairing damaged buildings and facilities, there are also indirect costs of providing duplicate goods, facilities and services for separate sections of the community, either implicitly or explicitly? These costs are borne not just by the public sector but by the private sector. Does he realise that divisions within society and a lack of political stability mean opportunity costs too, particularly related to lost inward investment into Northern Ireland and tourism? The Secretary of State recognised that in his speech in Brussels on 6 November, when he said:
“In Northern Ireland today over 90 per cent of public housing is segregated along sectarian lines. Over 90 per cent of children in Northern Ireland are educated separately … Indeed some independent estimates put the cost of division in Northern Ireland at around £1.5 billion. So bringing people together … and building a stronger, more shared society has to be an urgent priority”.
Does the Minister support efforts by the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland to require all departments to actively encourage de-segregation and to promote cohesion, sharing and integration within their policies and spending plans?
The Budget before us today is essential to ensure the full provision of resources for public services and to provide the legal authority to spend. But passing a Budget does not address the governance gap in Northern Ireland. Therefore, these scarce resources cannot be spent efficiently and effectively, and key reforms cannot be progressed. Even at this late stage, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has set out so clearly, there may be alternative ways to save devolution and to provide for shared and sustainable government in Northern Ireland. There are proposed interventions: for example, bringing in an external mediator; a different format for the talks; and reform to structures and mechanisms that can better incentivise progress.
I urge the Minister to consider all the options to restore devolution so that we do not throw away the hard-won gains of recent decades. It must be possible to find creative solutions to the current impasse, and we urge all those involved to redouble their efforts.
My Lords, I support this Bill and fully understand why it is necessary for it to be fast-tracked in order to allow public services to be delivered for the financial year ending 31 March 2018.
I also wish to join the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, in condemning the actions of the people who left a viable bomb in Omagh on Remembrance Day, which brought to mind the atrocious attack at the Enniskillen cenotaph some 30 years ago.
Regrettably, Northern Ireland has now been without an effective devolved Government since January of this year. Northern Ireland needs a Government to continue to proceed with the job of delivering health, education, jobs and investment. There has been such good progress in Northern Ireland over the last 10 years since agreement was reached. The devolved institutions were set up and we had the longest uninterrupted period of stable governance in a generation. Much work has been achieved, and it is worth repeating that Northern Ireland has travelled a considerable distance during the last decade.
The Democratic Unionist Party, along with Sinn Fein and other parties, has achieved good progress. Northern Ireland now has the second-highest level of foreign investment in the United Kingdom, and tourism is at an all-time high. It is important that we get devolved government up and running again in partnership with Sinn Fein and other parties in Northern Ireland.
There is therefore, understandably, a great deal of frustration among the general public and an exasperation that we have not reached this point. People want services to work for them in the way that is necessary. They want to see the transformation that needs to take place in key services. People want their elected representatives to deliver for them and, above all else, they want stability restored. To the vast majority it is much more desirable that work could continue across government, with locally elected Ministers who have a better understanding and knowledge of local issues. They know what decisions will work and what decisions will not in a local context. It is in the best interests of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole to have a functioning local Assembly and Executive in place.
There is no reason why workable devolution should not be up and running at this time. Members were elected to the Stormont Assembly and they have a mandate to serve. To that end, my party—the Democratic Unionist Party—approached the recent talks process with a clear focus and determination to restore the institutions immediately, with no caveats or absolute pre-reconditions. There was a genuine commitment throughout the process to securing a lasting agreement that would be supported across the whole of Northern Ireland.
There has been no question of any reticence from our perspective about re-forming an Executive. Despite these efforts over many months, regrettably agreement has not yet been reached. I commend Her Majesty’s Government for their conduct and work in the negotiations over a lengthy period. It has been a very difficult time. Indeed, most major political parties here and in Northern Ireland have been prepared to see a Government formed. However, instead of a workable way forward, the party which created the stalemate has put seeking the fulfilment of partisan political demands ahead of governing in the interests of all the people in Northern Ireland.
Given where we are, at a crossroads where one party has a veto over the formation of an Executive, we have now reached the point where practical measures have to be taken to ensure that the Northern Ireland departments do not run out of money, thus making the Northern Ireland Budget necessary. It is the right thing to do in the absence of devolution. The Bill before us is a Northern Ireland Budget drawn up by civil servants who have taken into account the views of the Northern Ireland political parties before the Assembly fell. I welcome the increase in spending on health and education. In particular, I welcome the announcement that the first instalment of the extra money—some £50 million—is coming to Northern Ireland, subject of course to a vote in Parliament, as a result of the confidence and supply agreement. This money will go into the health service and education across all communities, benefiting all the people of Northern Ireland.
Finally, does the Minister agree that, in the absence of local Ministers, a time will have to come when direct-rule Ministers will have to be put in place to administer future Budgets for Northern Ireland? If good government cannot be achieved at Stormont, Her Majesty’s Government are required to act to provide it. The Democratic Unionist Party will continue to engage with the other parties, particularly Sinn Fein, to try to restore devolution to Northern Ireland as soon as possible. I support the Bill.
I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench. I know that he has already answered a Question, but this is the first piece of legislation he has dealt with, and, unfortunately, he does not bring us good news. However, I hope that an opportunity will arise in the future when he is able to bring us something that we genuinely want to hear.
This is a very sad state of affairs. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, for his tour de force of the political landscape, both past and present. He has experience of being involved in the talks and of being a direct rule Minister, so he has seen the issue from both angles. That is very useful expertise to have in your Lordships’ House.
The fact is that in January of this year, the outgoing Finance Minister, Sinn Fein’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, instead of bringing in a Budget to the Assembly when it was still there, did a runner. He did not bring the Budget in because he did not want to have to take the tough decisions that would accompany it. This is nothing new. I remember vividly sitting in the Executive when we had to take a difficult decision on the location of a hospital. The Executive agreed that the unit would close and later that evening Sinn Fein representatives were outside the unit waving placards in protest, so this is nothing new. They talk a good game about being in government but will not take difficult decisions. This Budget could easily have been accommodated before the Assembly came to a close in March.
We are talking about the principle of the Bill and there is no alternative to it: that is the reality. However, there is a collective failure here. While Sinn Fein may very well be the villain of the piece in this particular instance, the fact is that it was given opportunities towards the end of last year when the crisis arose over the RHI scheme, which people seem to forget. But in fact, the public hearings have been going now for a week, and some of the things that are emerging from them illustrate that the culture in that last Administration was entirely wrong. People had influence and power well above their station and outside the democratic process. It was the worst Administration we have had since 1921. If we want to talk about rights and opportunities for people, what about the rights of the patients—over a quarter of a million of them—waiting on lists? What about the 64,000 people who have been waiting for over a year to see a consultant? These are life and death decisions. Anybody knows that if you need to see a consultant and you have to wait over a year, and if you have a disease, it could reach a critical juncture in that period. Who is speaking for these people? What rights do they have?
I understand perfectly well the issue of culture. We spent two years talking with nationalist politicians about this, and we understand that the identity issue is at the core— we get all that. However, we negotiated into the Belfast agreement a series of protections for cultural identity. We set up an all-Ireland language body, which has a Budget and a duty to promote Irish—and there was an Ulster Scots dimension to it as well. That body has been operating consistently since around 1999. We also have an Irish-medium education sector in Northern Ireland. Despite the fact that all the schools are under pressure, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, talks about people being educated separately, we now have four different streams. We now have an Irish-language sector, and some schools are being brought into existence with tiny numbers of pupils. We have broadcasting, which is perfectly reasonable —I have no issue with any of that. However, I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, that unlike Wales, where perhaps 25% of the population speaks Welsh, that is not the case in Northern Ireland. There is no identifiable geographical area where Irish is the spoken tongue. In addition, since 2000, the United Kingdom has signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which is an international treaty that guarantees the language. There are regular inspections every three years—the last one was in 2014—and recommendations are made to the signatories of the treaty to protect and guarantee the rights of Irish-language speakers. Therefore a whole range of protections is already in place, and all the commitments in the Belfast agreement have been met.
We have been arguing about Brexit, with a result of 52% to 48% in the referendum, but in the north 71.1% of votes were in support of the Belfast agreement with 28.9% against. People at that time knew what they were voting for. A number of us in the Chamber today were at those talks. At no time did Sinn Fein ever ask us for an Irish language Act. It was not mentioned in the first Executive or mentioned to me in the second Executive, although it subsequently appeared in the statement following the St Andrews agreement. However, it was never mentioned during the talks, and everything we were asked to do on cultural identity was done and implemented in full. So we need to get to the reality of what we are dealing with here.
The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, also mentioned the methodology in the talks. It has been confined effectively to the two parties; they are the largest parties, and that is perfectly understandable. However, the only time we got collective agreement was when everybody was involved, and nearly 40% of the Assembly has been cut out of this. Noble Lords may be shocked to learn that the last time the parties collectively sat round a table was in June. Since then, the other parties—making up nearly 40% of the Assembly—have been completely excluded, apart from meetings with the Secretary of State. Therefore, we need to look very closely at the methodology being employed.
Given where we are today, and having been at this for a long time, I think that going down the steps of Stormont is easy but getting back up them will be very difficult. Strategically, Sinn Fein has a long-term plan. I do not believe that Gerry Adams is committed to Northern Ireland’s existence. In the strand 1 talks, neither of the two larger parties was involved in any way whatever. Although Sinn Fein was technically in the building, it played no part, produced no papers, responded to no papers and made no contribution whatever on the basis that it was ideologically not its business to support an internal settlement, and at that time the DUP was outside the talks shouting “Traitor” at the rest of us. The fact is that nobody who is currently dealing with this situation was involved in the negotiations and that is significant. If Sinn Fein was so worried about an Irish language Act, why did it not ask us? Why did it not put that on the table?
Coming closer to home, when the crisis over the heating scheme arose last December—it was a very important issue—it was perfectly obvious that Sinn Fein was well aware of it before suddenly saying that it was a terrible development. I believe that it knew very well about the scheme because some of its Members were promoting it in their constituencies. I think that the First Minister of Northern Ireland made a mistake in not standing down for a few weeks and getting it over with. If she had done so, I do not think that we would have the crisis that we have today. It could easily have been avoided. It has happened before. She stood in for the previous First Minister twice, and when the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, experienced difficulties on a previous occasion, I stood in for him and after a few months the situation was restored. Therefore, in my personal opinion, the crisis could have been avoided.
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, mentioned that we should be talking about next year’s Budget. Normally at this time, the Executive would have special meetings to decide on the spending priorities for 2018-19, and this was raised in an earlier briefing. The Civil Service has at least something to work with because it knew roughly where the Executive were coming from last year. However, that will not be the case when we come to next year’s Budget. What will the Civil Service work on then? I know the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service very well—he is a good chap—but the fact is that he is effectively unaccountable to anybody. The Secretary of State has no power over him and there is no Assembly.
Therefore, I ask the Minister to take back to his colleagues and his right honourable friend this thought. If we cannot get an agreement now, it will be very easy to bring in direct rule and good governance and so on, but I can tell this House that it will be many a day before we get Stormont going again if we let it go down the drain this time. We should not forget that north/south and east/west bodies are involved and, in the middle of it all, Brexit is creating huge political tensions in Ireland. In my opinion, the Irish Government are perhaps moving towards holding an election before Brexit, and Sinn Fein is very happy to exploit the whole situation. If we are not careful, we will fall into a trap and I urge the Government to look at the options. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has mentioned some in the past and the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has mentioned others. There are loads of options and models, and we have to think outside the box. If we let these institutions slip through our fingers, it will be many a day before we get them back.
Yesterday we had a visit from SAVIA—Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse. I am sure that representatives from all our parties in both Houses met its members. These are people who fought for years to get a public inquiry into their plight. That was eventually granted to them and Sir Anthony Hart reported at the beginning of this year. The contents of that report were truly shocking but the Executive that set up the inquiry were not there to receive it or do anything about its findings. Those people are effectively being abused again. The Ulster Unionist Party will be writing to the Secretary of State and the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service—I urge all the other parties to do so and believe that they will—to ask that a line be included in the Budget for 2018-19 for at least an interim payment. Some members of the group have died and all are under great strain. This is an example of another group of people whose rights are just ignored. This House and this Parliament have a duty to ensure that they are not put through more trauma.
We cannot keep away from Brexit. I have asked this question many times: where is our voice? It is not being heard. We are affected more than any other part of the country and yet we are out to lunch. The idea floating around from Mr Verhofstadt, and indeed from the Irish Prime Minister at the weekend—that we should remain in the customs union and the single market while the rest of the UK leaves—is a non-runner. Only 15% of our trade is with the Irish Republic, which means that 85% is not, and 90% of the Irish Republic’s goods go either to or via Great Britain. The problem, therefore, is for the Republic in many respects, but it has to be resolved. The Brussels policy of trying to separate this issue from trade is nonsense. We have to look at the big picture. I do not want to see a border; nobody does. But we have to talk sensibly, and creating a border up the Irish Sea instead of where it is currently makes no sense, neither economically nor politically. We will come to further discussions on Brexit, and I suspect that when the Bill comes to the House, one or two colleagues may wish to make a contribution. I am quite sure that this issue will figure largely. To use the coined phrase, the problem of Brexit and the border “will not go away, you know”. We have to deal with it.
I urge the Minister to take what I have said back to his colleagues. We need to think outside the box and look at options and alternative ways of involving the politicians in Belfast. There is no point going on about their salaries if there is not an opportunity to give them something concrete to do and participate in, which is what the vast majority of them want.
My Lords, I add my voice to those who have welcomed the Minister to the Front Bench. I always felt hope in any situation when talking to a fellow Celt, and I have that hope tonight.
It is essential that this Bill be passed as a matter of urgency. It comes before your Lordships’ House because of a situation that demands that Parliament provide Northern Ireland with the legislative authority it cannot provide for itself. The failure to achieve a devolved Administration despite months of negotiation is a failure of the body politic but also a sad reality for any post-conflict society. The Bill seeks to provide the Northern Ireland Civil Service with the means to address urgent need for hospitals, schools and departments of government that we ought to be able to take for granted. I too pay tribute to the Northern Ireland Civil Service for the manner in which its staff have performed their duty in the most trying of circumstances. This is, in the truest meaning of the phrase, “enabling legislation”.
Beyond our discussion of the technicalities of this Bill is a community crying out for political activity which is truly the act of the possible. Instead, there is a rapidly growing disenchantment among ordinary people with the inactivity of the devolved Administration in meeting the needs of its people. Those people are exasperated by months of impasse and that exasperation is quickly moving to a point where many ask, “What is the point of a local administration which does not work”? Indeed, serious questions are being asked about the nature of devolved government.
Thirty years ago last Sunday the poppy day bomb exploded and threw Enniskillen into the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Thirty years ago I was there. What I saw and experienced cried out for democratic local government to provide the basis for a peace process, where real politics could provide equality and justice for all. Thirty years later, we still wait. The Enniskillens of this world, the victims and the memories of the past, make it all the more important that this Bill passes quickly into law, for our politics have failed in that task.
We are assured by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that what is before your Lordships’ House is not direct rule. It is, rather, a necessary means of meeting urgent need. But tell us, what follows this Bill? What if there is no local agreement? Where do we go from here—direct rule; local elections; more stalemate?
There are other questions that this Bill poses, such as the nature of accountability, for there are certain boundaries and limits to the powers of the Secretary of State in this situation. What have we to offer the victims of the past? What have we to offer new generations in our schools? What have we to offer the hard-pressed hospitals? What have we to offer the long queues of people waiting for surgery?
The Bill is necessary but it cannot answer all the needs. At most it can buy more time—but is there the political will to make full use of what it provides? Last Sunday I had the privilege of speaking of that event 30 years ago on Radio 4. Among the reactions, let me share some words which show that this Bill can be an opportunity for yet more effort to break the political impasse. They are the words given to me by a widow of the Enniskillen bomb. She said:
“Is there no way politics can meet the challenge of what we have come through? Is there no hope it can offer the likes of me”?
Those words should haunt every one of us tonight.
I say to this House: pass the Bill as a necessity. I say to the politicians of Northern Ireland: my fellow countrymen, try again. Nothing less will meet the legacy of the past—and I, for one, have lived through that legacy. I say, with respect, to the Prime Minister: please get involved, not only because of the activity but because of the symbolism that such involvement would mean, and symbolism has always mattered in Northern Ireland.
May this legislation of opportunity be a spur to even greater effort to make local politicians work for all the people of Northern Ireland, for those people deserve no less and no more.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure for this Englishman without a drop of Celtic blood to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, who has brought to the debate such wise and far-reaching reflections. There will, of course, be unanimity across the House in strong support of this Bill, published yesterday. Northern Ireland’s vital public services, provided with so much dedication by many men and women across the Province, must be maintained. It would be intolerable to think that schools, hospitals and the other institutions on which our fellow countrymen and women in Ulster depend might be set at risk by problems of funding.
It is bad enough that plans for fundamental improvement and reform, particularly where health services are concerned, should have been halted for so long by the collapse of the devolved institutions. The need for change has been brought to us movingly and powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in the debate. Indeed, far-reaching change in public services is essential to ensure that money is spent much more effectively and usefully, as the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, pointed out. The defects in the execution of the devolved powers have been brought home to us in this Chamber repeatedly and vividly by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and others, but matters must not be made worse by the possibility of any deterioration of existing provision as a result of unresolved budgetary difficulties. That possibility will now be eliminated following the rapid passage of this emergency measure, and the Government deserve full support in the action they have taken to allay anxiety about the finances of Northern Ireland’s public services in the immediate future.
As a number of noble Lords have pointed out, the Bill is the product of work done by the Northern Ireland Civil Service with its customary skill. It has been made clear to us that the spending for which the Bill provides reflects the priorities established by the former Northern Ireland Executive before its collapse. That is exactly how it should be. Democratically determined decisions are being carried forward, as far as is practicable, in the current circumstances of grave difficulty.
The Province is indeed fortunate to have a Civil Service to which such a task can be entrusted with complete confidence. Northern Ireland’s civil servants have been prominent among the unsung heroes and heroines of devolution since the first establishment of a Parliament and Government after partition in 1921. Their integrity and impartiality have never been impugned. They are recruited from all parts of the community. This Bill, which they have made possible, reminds us of the extent to which the Northern Ireland Civil Service has been a mainstay of good government in times of peril, as in times of peace. It deserves our profound thanks.
The Bill reminds us, too, in the starkest form of the difficulty of securing proper, democratically accountable government in a constituent part of our country at this time. Northern Ireland languishes in a deeply unsatisfactory state of political limbo. It is denied the services of elected representatives in a devolved Assembly and Executive. It is denied a reordering of the Assembly’s activities to enable it to work on different lines in the ways suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and on previous occasions by my noble friend Lord Trimble, and it is denied their replacement by some alternative set of arrangements. At the moment, it is even denied the firm and definite prospect of full democratic government as the search goes on and on interminably for a return to what existed 11 long months ago, even though hope of success was abandoned some time ago by almost everyone outside the Northern Ireland Office, which of course is entirely distinct from the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
Tories are supposed to stand for hard-headed realism, recognising that endless talk, conducted with the best of intentions, will not always lead ultimately to desirable agreements and compromises. That great Tory, Dr Johnson, chided those who,
“listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope”.
Phantoms of hope have perhaps been allowed to linger too long in the affairs of Northern Ireland today.
Northern Ireland’s Budget could not be scrutinised at Stormont and it has been introduced here too late to be given serious scrutiny by Members of the two Houses. There are Select Committees to which the Budget could have been submitted if it had been brought before this Parliament, perhaps last month, paving the way for informed debate in both Houses. However, the Government, guided by the strange optimism of the Northern Ireland Office, persisted in the view, as late as last week, that the devolved institutions could yet be restored to provide a happy, democratic ending at Stormont to the prolonged impasse. Has not the time come to set a date for the conclusion of the long-running inter-party talks, in a final phase conducted fully by, and properly including, all parties in Northern Ireland, as stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Empey?
Although the Bill must be passed without delay, as a historian, I cannot readily think of a recent precedent for the passage of a peacetime Budget, however limited in scope, to which elected representatives have been unable to give careful consideration and about which they have been unable to put detailed questions to Ministers in a parliamentary forum before it is given approval. What is passed by this Parliament must surely remain firmly within the scope of this Parliament’s responsibilities. Scrutiny of the manner in which this Budget contributes to Northern Ireland’s well-being will be needed after it has been put into effect. In the absence of devolution or the resuscitation of the Assembly in some different form, that duty should rest firmly with us and Members of the other place.
My Lords, I rise to support the Bill and thank the Minister for his careful introduction. In particular, I welcome his insistence that the Government, with the Irish Government, remain strongly committed to the 1998 Belfast agreement.
I echo the process point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. I do not criticise the Government in this instance, at this time, for the lack of scrutiny of this legislation, for example through the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee. The circumstances and timing of events are such that this neglect is perfectly understandable. We should take account of the underlying point made by the noble Lord that if we slide or move, regrettably, toward further legislation and direct rule, there must be proper scrutiny. We cannot go on like this. On this occasion, I think it reasonable that the Government were struggling to achieve a deal. There have been moments in the past few months when it seemed possible—I do not think it was simply an illusion—but it has not proven so. On this occasion, I understand why this has happened; however, in future, we must pay attention to the process point. It is fundamental to our democracy, and I think the noble Lord signalled something tonight that is very important.
I want to talk about some of the difficulties. I accept that, at various times, there has been movement by one of the other two major parties in these talks, but it has not been enough. I very much hope that over the next few months, that movement will be sufficient for the restoration of devolved government. However, there are two extra problems—as if we did not have enough problems blocking progress. One has already been alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Empey: the return of the renewable heating initiative to the headlines. It is difficult to see how this issue, which was very divisive—it dropped back slightly in significance and now, inevitably, it is returning to the public eye as the hearings go on—will improve the chances of an agreement.
An even more profound issue is the way Brexit is affecting the mood of politics in Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole. I regard this as regrettable and by no means inevitable. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, is perfectly correct to say it is impossible to deal with the issues on the border without dealing with the wider trade issues. Our own European Union Select Committee makes exactly that point with some strength. Nobody would dispute that it is composed largely of friends of the European ideal, but we are stuck on this point.
It does not seem that the situation will get any easier over the next few weeks, although I have my hopes. In effect, that means that the general Anglophobia of even moderate nationalist opinion is intensified to a point that was not the case two years ago. This allows Sinn Fein to be more obstructive and to feel it has permission to be so. Also, you cannot get quite the coherence of purpose to reach a deal that, at certain points, was achieved between the British and Irish Governments. During the last week of talks in 1998, Tony Blair was in one way required to take strong action to modify some of the earlier position papers at the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. Also, very importantly, the Taoiseach at the time saw that he had a chance—that the noble Lord was, in effect, offering an end to the cold war between north and south. The Taoiseach felt he could not turn down that offer in the days leading up to the Good Friday agreement.
The two Governments came together—they did not always. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, will remember occasions when there were conflicts between the positions of the two Governments, but frequently in those days of the process, the two Governments achieved a real unity of purpose and sent out a signal to the parties as to where the line of compromise should lie. Unfortunately, we have to accept that Brexit is making that more difficult. It should not—in my view, the whole Brexit question has not been properly handled in Irish politics—yet that is the case. That is another reason for fearing that we may not get a deal, which is possible and cannot be ruled out, in the next few weeks.
I say these things because, while I agree completely with the appeal many have made to the better angels and the spirit of Northern Irish politicians, I believe a lot of the deals have been made because people fear something worse coming down the track. We have to be very careful about this. There are nationalists who believe that the “something worse coming down the track” should be joint authority imposed on the unionists. The Government set their face firmly against that before the election, and still do. That will not happen. However, it does not mean that you cannot present one side or the other with choices that are a bit more complicated than they currently are. If we rule that out, which I firmly believe we ought to—indeed, the Government have—there are other questions that the Governments have to think about.
The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, talked about Wales and how the Welsh Language Act did not mean the end of the union. He is perfectly correct. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, is right that the terms of the agreement were not discussed at all in 1998 by Sinn Fein, but in 2006, at St Andrews, reference was made to the British Government legislating on an Irish language Act on the Welsh model. If we have a long period of direct rule—we are not there now, but if we move to formalise direct rule—that issue has to be talked about in this Parliament. The idea that we simply stagnate seems to me impossible.
Equally, I noticed that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson raised legacy issues in the other place last night and argued that the Government should be doing things about them now. That is extremely difficult. I could mention other divisive issues in these talks. I am reluctant to say this because the main effort should be to achieve devolution’s return over the next few weeks, but there has to be some sense that the Government are thinking about policy decisions they might make if we do not get a deal. The first approach over the next few weeks and months must still be to get a deal. I am fully aware that there is a downside to anything you can say in this respect, but the Government have to signal that there will be Northern Irish business in this House and it will not be a matter of just sending money, as we are in effect doing.
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; 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.
My Lords, first, I express outrage about the events that occurred at the weekend. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, a viable device was left at the Omagh cenotaph—an appalling act carried out by evil people. In my own city of Londonderry there have been a number of shootings in the past few weeks. These incidents show that without political agreement in Northern Ireland, other people in Northern Ireland will fill the vacuum. That is the worrying trend in not getting political agreement in Northern Ireland. The history of Northern Ireland has been that if there is no political will to resolve the issues, other people feel they can resolve them through violence. It is an important point to make to the House.
I support the Northern Ireland Budget Bill. With the failure of the talks process, the Secretary of State had no option but to act in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland in bringing forward a Budget before public services run out of money. If the current impasse continues, I believe there will be a greater initiative from London to get involved in the politics of Northern Ireland. It should be a warning to all our political parties in Northern Ireland—I have to say, especially to Sinn Fein. I know that to some people some of these issues seem simple. They are not. The bottom line is that we have a political party in Northern Ireland—Sinn Fein—which does not even recognise the very existence of the country. So that is where we are starting from, unlike in Scotland and Wales, where at least there is a political will to be part of the country and make it work. In Northern Ireland that is not the case, so that compounds the issue for my party to try to come to an agreement.
To pick up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, we are willing as a party to go the second mile in trying to resolve these political issues. Certainly, we will make a number of attempts to resolve these issues because we all want to see a fully restored Executive in Northern Ireland, where decisions can be made in the best interests of the whole community in Northern Ireland. That is our goal. We have always been a devolutionist party. We still want devolution to work in Northern Ireland but it takes all the parties committed to Northern Ireland to make that work. As a party, we have made it clear over and again that we are willing to break the current impasse. It is important to say that. We would form an Executive and continue negotiations in parallel, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said earlier. We are prepared to do that. For many people in Northern Ireland, health, education and the economy are far more important than what Sinn Fein is arguing for when it comes to the Irish language.
I will say something about the Irish language in Northern Ireland. There are many groups in Northern Ireland which speak the Irish language and which have grown the Irish language, but which have not brought politics into the Irish language. For many years Sinn Fein has used the Irish language as a stick to beat unionists with. I think the fear from the broader unionist community is: what would Sinn Fein not do if it had an Irish language Act? When you ask Sinn Fein to spell out what an Irish language Act would mean, how it would be delivered on the ground and how it would work, it finds it very difficult. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, the Irish language has been protected. A lot of money has gone to it, and rightly so, but one has to say that when it comes to an Act there is fear in the broader community and the unionist community about what it all really means. We are dealing with a different situation from that of the Welsh and Scottish languages, As I keep saying, we have a political party in Northern Ireland that wants to use language for its own aim: to create a problem for another community. That is our greatest fear in these negotiations.
We all want a shared future in Northern Ireland; we all wish very much to achieve that and believe it can happen. When I look back over a number of years at the personal sacrifices made by so many to get devolution up and running—many people who are in the House at this time, and those outside it—it is sad that it could be coming to an end. I do not say that with any willingness. We want devolution to work for Northern Ireland and an Executive to deliver for all the people of Northern Ireland. That is still our aim. I keep saying to the House that, yes, we will go the second mile as a party to try to achieve that, but there is only so much that we as a party can do in that process to make it happen.
I welcome the Minister to his position this evening and I want to come to the budget itself. I see within it that the Executive’s office, which is not functioning at the moment, has had a 32% increase in its budget. Can the Minister explain how that has happened? The noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised that as well. The Minister will know that there is cross-party support for the Hart report’s recommendations on historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland. I understand that the leaders of the five main parties in Northern Ireland have written to the head of the Civil Service to try to move that issue forward. Having spoken to the victims, it is sad that it cannot move forward with the head of the Civil Service because the letters went to him. It was thought that he could act to try to resolve the issue and implement payments for those victims.
I very much support the Bill before the House. I hope that by the time we speak in this House again, we will have devolution up and running in Northern Ireland for all of the people there.
My Lords, I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, to the Front Bench and I support the Bill.
We in Northern Ireland are often accused of looking backwards too often but at times it helps us to look at the present and to the future. We arrived at the current impasse when Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at Arlene Foster’s refusal to stand aside from her role as First Minister while an investigation into the renewable heat incentive took place. One may argue that Mrs Foster could have handled the situation better, but Sinn Fein must have known that no unionist could possibly be seen to acquiesce to such a demand.
It is worth noting that in the months that followed—even during the hustings on 2 March—scant, if any, mention was made of the RHI scheme. Was this because Sinn Fein was not that concerned or was it simply an excuse to collapse the Executive? I believe it was the latter and, if not, that it would have found some other excuse to walk out. Sinn Fein is now making demands regarding LGBT issues and an Irish language Act, when it knows that the leader of the DUP has said publicly that she would not accept such an Act. Sinn Fein makes other red-line demands, too, so it does not want to be seen forming an Executive in Northern Ireland—certainly not until after the elections in southern Ireland. If this analysis is correct, we face months of uncertainty in Northern Ireland and a prolonged period when decisions are made not by Ministers but by civil servants. I believe the civil servants will do an excellent job; nevertheless, to whom will the Permanent Secretaries be accountable?
Northern Ireland needs political decision-making. Thus, if we are not to have a functioning Executive at home, we must have Ministers appointed here in London so that someone is charge of departments in Northern Ireland—Ministers who can give political direction and decisions to the Civil Service and, equally importantly, Ministers who can be questioned by fellow politicians regarding such decisions.
I welcome the Bill and I support the Secretary of State in introducing it. Of course, it would have been preferable had it been introduced at Stormont by a Northern Ireland Minister, but it was not, and we need to provide funds for essential services in Northern Ireland. However, we will need another Budget in a few months’ time. Will the Minister tell us who is going to introduce it and who will be able to question and scrutinise its contents? The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, put forward the idea that in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive means should be found to allow the Assembly to meet. I strongly urge the Minister to consider that proposition. The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that the position we find ourselves in and what we are doing this evening does not constitute direct rule. It is at least “direct rule lite”. The Minister must take more decisive decisions to enable future good governance in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I rise to speak briefly in the gap. I want to address three specific issues. When we had our debate on 18 July, one of the points that I raised with the Minister at the time was that a report had been produced by me and two colleagues on the development of a strategy to get rid of the paramilitary organisations. That strategy was accepted by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and the Government here and the Executive in Northern Ireland committed to £25 million each over a period of five years. We have had no reporting of this. An international independent reporting commission has been put in place. It is yet to report, although our report was produced in May 2016. Will the Minister say whether we can expect a report from that commission soon? It was expected to report at least once a year, and it has now been in operation for almost a year. Is that £5 million, or whatever the appropriate amount is, in these Budget figures? Is it identified for the Department of Justice or is part of it for justice and part for other things? Everything seems to have gone very quiet on the strategy to deal with paramilitaries, except for the activity of the paramilitaries, which is not quiet at all.
My second question is about the budget for the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission. If it is the case that it includes funding for Assembly Members until the end of this financial year, for many people it raises the question of whether full salaries should continue to be paid if the Assembly continues in its suspended state. I am keen to hear from the Minister what the Government’s intention is on that, if we come to the new year with no Assembly functioning properly. In this and previous debates, the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has suggested various models that could be brought into place, and I support him on that.
That brings me to my third point. I no longer believe that it is the difficulty of reaching agreement that is the obstruction; it is the will to reach agreement. That being the case, the Secretary of State needs to brush aside or blow aside the phantom of hope referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and take action. It is true that Northern Ireland politicians from some, if not all, parties tend to take action only when it is absolutely necessary.
The only legal action the Secretary of State can take without bringing legislation to this House and the other place is to call an election. It is sometimes asked what difference an election would make. I might have subscribed to that view until a couple of years ago, but elections are now a much less predictable business all over the world than they have been in the past. It is important, given what has happened, including the failure to reach agreement, that the people of Northern Ireland should be given an opportunity to say what they think about all this. If that were to happen, it needs to come into place very quickly, because the government narrative that this is not a direct rule Bill, as it is based on decisions taken by the previous Executive or on pointers in that direction, does not carry beyond the early part of 2018.
Therefore there needs to be an election; and if there is to be one at the end of January or early February—not very welcome weather-wise, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, but nevertheless necessary—that brings into place not just the election but the need for Secretary of State to appoint an Executive within a certain period. People will then have the opportunity to negotiate on the basis of a new mandate. If at that point there is no agreement, then some of the suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, need to be taken up, but then decisions have to be made about the authority of this Parliament as a direct rule Parliament. It will no longer be acceptable to pretend that we can put Budgets through this place that are based on anything expressed by Executive Ministers on the other side of the water. I urge the Minister that it is now essential to move. It cannot be delayed further.
My Lords, I respectfully remind those speaking in the gap that the time limit is four minutes.
My Lords, I express my support for the Bill and for the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, in his new responsibilities. The Bill provides us with a Budget, but no more. It is a holding operation, as I think we all agree. We in Northern Ireland are falling further and further behind on numerous indicators across health and education. That is in the wider context of our terrible levels of suicide, drug and alcohol dependency, transgenerational Troubles-related trauma, a perception of greater dividedness and a sense that the normal rules of governance no longer work.
Northern Ireland has no proper government, no proper leadership and no strategic direction, and has had those for nearly a year now. There is no accountability for the exercise of power at governmental level. In that lacuna, strange things are happening. We look with disbelief at the levels of money directed towards people from the paramilitary community, some of whom, it is alleged, are engaged in serious crime. I look at the situation in which the chief constable of the PSNI has said that he has been unable, for three years, to produce documents which a court has ordered him to produce in a case in which a man is suing the chief constable for compensation for two attempted murders which the chief constable has admitted responsibility for. Yet for three years the chief constable has not, he says, been able to produce the documents.
We have seen a huge increase in the level of paramilitary shootings and attacks, as the noble Lord, Lord Hay, said. It seems to me now that virtually every morning when I wake up, there has been another shooting or attack. It is like it used to be when we were waking up every morning to that kind of news. The placing of the bomb in Omagh on Sunday was an absolute outrage and an appalling act. It seems to me we have less and less hope of building cohesion and community while we have all this going on.
I am concerned about the situation with regard to Brexit. Gerry Adams has said he will call for a referendum on a united Ireland. It would suit Sinn Fein to have the British Government in power in Northern Ireland at a time when Brexit is raising significant concerns in Ireland, north and south, as it would enhance any call he made for the abolition of the border. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, referred to calls from Brussels for Northern Ireland to remain within the customs union. All that works in favour of Sinn Fein just sitting it out and waiting until Adams is in a position where he can call for a referendum on a united Ireland. The prognosis is deteriorating. The border issue will impact on the United Kingdom; there is no doubt about that.
Why talk of this? Because, while I accept that the UK is battling on many fronts—international terrorism, organised crime and Brexit—we need robust government engagement with the problem in Northern Ireland. There needs to be real challenge to both the DUP and Sinn Fein. The proclaimed Sinn Fein position on the issues which prevent it getting into government should not prevent it from getting into government.
Most of us in Northern Ireland do not know what these endless talks have been about. We know the two words “equality” and “culture”, but we do not really know. While all these talks are going on, our cultural development, which has been so hard sought—as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said—is being eroded, and society is becoming less equal in access to really important things, such as health.
We have to get our two parties into government again; we have to make Northern Ireland work for all the people. We have, as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said in the other place, to resolve the issue of dealing with the past. I am engaged constantly on the past in Northern Ireland, as are many other Members. I sit on the Stakeknife investigation into an IRA republican, on a loyalist investigation, and am dealing constantly with the problems of those who cannot get justice.
I ask the Government please to engage effectively and robustly to help us to come back to government in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench and caution him that he needs to decipher carefully the information that he gets from Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Office, as his predecessor discovered. It is well known that I asked his predecessor how often the present Secretary of State had consulted the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice, Lord Empey, Lord Trimble and Lord Kilclooney, and me—five who had been engaged in the Belfast agreement and had some experience of the difficulties. I was told in the Answer that he regularly meets us, notifies us, and so on. If I can be non-political about it, that was a contrived inexactitude. We talk about getting a solution, but Members of this House—the most experienced people in the field—are by and large ignored. As we move forward, I appeal that that ignoring of noble Lords from Northern Ireland not continue. Without consultation, we will be in massive difficulty.
I shall illustrate that. I have very little to which I shall ask the Minister to respond tonight, but I will ask him to take note. On three occasions, I asked about the abuse of proxy voting in Northern Ireland. Proxy voting has increase by 550% since 2010. Proxy voting increased by 800% in Foyle constituency. We were complaining about the lack of nationalists in the House of Commons, and I regret that very much. That is where a constitutional nationalist lost his seat. I asked three times and was told, “Oh the chief electoral officer will sort it out”. It is a political problem that the present Secretary of State does not have the guts to tackle, and there is no point leaving it to the chief electoral officer.
We have to be discerning as to where and when our Civil Service is allowing itself to be or is being manipulated by whomever. I had a quite nasty experience. When I was 75 my driving licence was out of date. I applied for one and got my GP to put in the normal piece about me being fit to drive, and so on. A young man, a Mr Paul Duffy, decided that he wanted my medical records. I said that I would bring them to the doctor. “We don’t employ a doctor”, he told me. When I asked what he would do with my medical records, he said that they would be safe enough in a drawer in his office. It got to the stage that I beat him down after 22 months, and he handed me my driving licence on 6 May 2015. I got into my car and drove off. He went upstairs and watched me driving on to the main road with my new licence, and reported me to the police. I told the police that I now had a licence and when they looked at it, it was dated one day after the day it was handed over to me. That sort of behaviour goes on across the Civil Service in Northern Ireland. I do not want to damn every civil servant; I have huge regard for a lot of them, but we cannot go on allowing abuse.
I conclude simply by saying that the Irish language Bill has nothing to do with the Irish language which has always prospered in Northern Ireland throughout my 80 years. It has to do with arranging a system whereby there will have to be quotas in the courts, the police and in all public bodies. There will be a quota system based on whether someone can speak the Irish language and there will be another confrontation and more trouble.
My Lords, I will endeavour to stick to the four minutes that is allocated within the gap, and I shall make an honest attempt to do that. I too welcome the Minister here, and I also support the Bill. Some contend that it should have happened much earlier, and indeed, I strongly feel that it should. However, better late than never because we have a situation that has developed in Northern Ireland which is what we call adrift, which cannot be good.
I have listened intently to every word spoken here this evening. There have been a lot of constructive comments, and some not so, but if you cannot be critical in the twilight years of your life, when will you get the chance again? I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and put him in the more positive category. I believe that he has made a sincere and positive contribution this evening. I say that because he is one of the architects of the Belfast agreement.
As I stand here, I hardly recognise the Belfast agreement that has been extolled on the Floor tonight. That agreement kicked the RUC into touch, released every convicted terrorist, supplied comfort letters for on-the-runs, and yet when some of us pointed out the deficiencies in the Belfast agreement, we were told that we were illiterate, had no understanding and that we were only winding people up. Let me say respectfully that we told the people of Northern Ireland what the consequences of the Belfast agreement would be. However, they supported it. As people who believe in devolution —we are democrats—we had to say, “This is what the people have said”. I heard another noble Lord say, “I think another election would sort things out”. We had one in May 2016, one in March 2017 and another one in June 2017, so I suppose another one in a couple of months’ time will hardly make a lot of difference. I want to make it very clear that, as a democrat, I do not fear an election. Why could I and why should I?
Much has been said about an Irish language Act. I am sure all noble Lords know that £170 million has already been spent on the Irish language. I think the picture has been painted tonight that not a penny goes into that. The Irish language has been weaponised in Northern Ireland. It cannot be compared with the Welsh language. Was it not Danny Morrison who said that every word spoken in Irish was as effective as a bullet fired from a gun? It is against that backdrop that we have to find a way through this maze in which we find ourselves.
The virtues of the Belfast agreement have been extolled but sadly people have only listened to the agreement. An agreement is one thing, legislation is quite another. That is what we as a party said we would do—look at the legislation. My time is up; I must stop.
My Lords, I take this opportunity to welcome the new Minister to this Northern Ireland brief. I am sure he will find it interesting. I join the Minister and most noble Lords who have spoken in condemning the actions of the people who left a viable pipe bomb in Omagh on Remembrance Sunday, on a day and in a place designed to cause maximum harm and shock. It was a truly contemptible act. That awful incident is a timely and salutary reminder of Northern Ireland’s past—a past everyone in this House hoped to have left long behind us. Events like this are also a reminder of the propensity of violence in Northern Ireland to fill a vacuum when politics fails. That has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords tonight. There has been a failure by the majority parties in Northern Ireland to come back together into a power-sharing Government. I do not enjoy saying this but I am afraid that it is also a failure of the Secretary of State’s Government to bring about the restitution of trust and the reconstitution of the Assembly and its institutions.
The Official Opposition support the Bill and I make it clear that we will support it tonight. We believe that the Secretary of State had no choice but to bring forward this Budget on the advice of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and we accept the arguments the Minister has made in that regard. Northern Ireland’s public services need to be supported. Nobody has quite claimed that direct rule is a panacea but there have been claims that it is a good thing. I do not think that it is but there is an extra ingredient in that doubt—namely, that the present Government are propped up by a voting agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party. Whether we like it or not and whether it is accurate or not, I am sure that folk here know that this is about how things look and about perceptions in Northern Ireland. As soon as a decision is taken on spending under direct rule that the nationalist community thinks and believes—or wants to think and believe—is biased against it, the cycle will start again. I do not think that is a good thing.
The Secretary of State has effectively said that this is a flat budget for the Northern Ireland departments but within that headline figure there are shifts between departments, with cuts for some and increases for others. If that decision was not made by a Northern Ireland Executive Minister or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, it was made by civil servants, who are unaccountable and who do not now have a clear line of accountability to elected politicians in Northern Ireland. Although we accept that the Bill is necessary, and we also pay tribute to the Civil Service for its service, the Government must acknowledge there is a democratic deficit here. In financial terms this Budget is only a quick fix until the end of March.
Devolution, not direct rule—we are almost 11 months on from the collapse of the Northern Ireland institutions. The answer we seek, in keeping with the Good Friday agreement, is a return to devolution. The Secretary of State is right to say that direct rule would be a huge backwards step for Northern Ireland. Experience tells us that as soon as we have direct rule, it is very hard to get rid of it. We are told that progress has been made, but communities in Northern Ireland are not seeing any change. It is clear that what has been done over those 11 months is not working.
The key question for the Secretary of State and the Government is: what are they going to do differently now to take this process forward? An idea was put forward by my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, with all his credibility and experience, of having the Assembly sit and discuss, while not legally taking decisions. That was welcomed by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who, again, has contributed a massive amount to the peace process in Northern Ireland and who can speak with that authority. We hope that that proposal or idea can be pursued by the Government.
In addition, have the Secretary of State and the Government considered the prospect of an independent chair for the talks, to give them new impetus? I know that some people will say that not all interventions by Prime Ministers and other independent people have worked. However, what is the alternative? We have to try everything. We would like a response from the Minister about the prospect of appointing an independent chair.
Have the Government considered the option of round-table talks? We all know that such talks can be unwieldy and problematic, but in the past they have also been the platform for breakthrough and have allowed for public scrutiny and for smaller parties to have their say. It is essential that a forum is created where the smaller parties in Northern Ireland have their say, not just the two main parties. We urge the Minister to consider whether round-table talks could have the role in the future that has worked in the past.
Such round-table talks have worked particularly well when the authority and power of the office of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has been brought to bear on a process. We can think of no greater public duty for our Prime Minister than to serve the process in Northern Ireland. What personal intervention and effort will the Prime Minister now bring to the process that has so far been lacking? We believe that communities in Northern Ireland will not understand why the Prime Minister—the Prime Minister of our country—has at the very least given the perception of being so distant from this process. It was gratifying to hear the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, also mention this. Again, he has a terrific record in Northern Ireland of contributing to peace, and his voice should be listened to.
In the case of failure, the Secretary of State will at some point have to give a road map of what he and the Government plan to do. As well as considering direct rule Ministers, he must also consider how best to keep the institutions alive to allow such things as the north-south arrangement to persist and to be properly served, and to enable proper and well-defined interest from the Government of the Republic of Ireland during direct rule. That needs to be considered so that the spirit as well as the letter of the Good Friday agreement is adhered to.
It has been a privilege and a heavy responsibility for me tonight to listen to such experienced, weighty, well-intentioned people, most of whom, if not all, I certainly consider personal friends. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, came up with an idea for the Democratic Unionist Party. He said that Sinn Fein should transparently be offered an Irish language Act, and he asked whether it would be wrong if, at the same time, the Government offered support for the culture of most working-class unionist communities in Northern Ireland—the Orange institution and the Williamite tradition. If that is the culture there, what is wrong with offering that in order to get people back to the table and to get them talking? The noble Lord has certainly proved that he is a man of ideas, and I understand what he says even more when I see the cohesion between my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, the noble Lords, Lord Trimble and Lord Alderdice, and all the people involved in the talks.
Therefore, we are looking for a breakthrough and an innovative idea to bring this impasse to a conclusion. There are people throughout this House tonight who are full of ideas and who can surely contribute if we can get people talking together again. As usual, and quite rightly, we all support the Government in any initiative that they come up with to try to get this done. I make it clear that we will support the Bill tonight.
I thank noble Lords very much for their contributions this evening. It has been a wide-ranging discussion, at the heart of which has been a consensus and a recognition that, as my noble friend Lord Trimble said, it is only a matter of days before the money begins to run out. Let that be the focus of our endeavours today. It is important—indeed, it is vital—that the money does not run out, and I welcome the support for this Bill from across the entire House. However, that is only the beginning of the story that we have heard this evening.
A number of the points that have been made resonate particularly strongly. The first came from the noble Lord, Lord Browne: progress has been made and we have had stable governance for almost a generation. That is the ultimate prize—stable and sustainable government, not just for one generation but for all generations. That must be our driving force.
I was also struck by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy: direct rule is not a solution; it is a tragedy. I think we all recognise that we wish to see the formation of an Executive who are stable and sustainable and who can deliver on the very issues that many noble Lords have flagged up concerning education, health and elsewhere. We need these decisions to be taken by people in Northern Ireland. That is critical and absolutely essential.
I noted too the words of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who said that it is easy to walk down the steps of Stormont but hard to walk back up them. Let that be our watchword today. If we do indeed stumble down those steps from Stormont, it could well be a generation before we are able to climb our way back up to where we need to be, which is in peace and certainty delivered by the Government of Northern Ireland for the people of Northern Ireland. Let us be under no illusion about that. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was very clear when he pointed out that, when the Belfast agreement referendum took place, over 70% of the people supported it. That is what the people want—again, let us be under no illusion about that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, set out very clearly that there are serious issues in Northern Ireland that must be solved. This evening we heard tributes from a number of noble Lords for the Civil Service in Northern Ireland. The word “integrity” was used, and it is right that we use it. We are placing upon its shoulders extraordinary pressures. As many have pointed out, the Civil Service cannot be held to account as a politician can be, and we cannot lose sight of that. As each of those civil servants seek to plot the trajectory of the Budgets from the last outgoing Administration, we must not fail to recognise how difficult that becomes the further you move from that moment. It is almost impossible to conceive of this state of affairs lasting. It cannot last. We are asking too much of that Civil Service. That is why we come back again to the central point that we have all acknowledged this evening: that out of these talks must emerge a certainty that gives a sustainable Executive that can deliver each of these items in Northern Ireland itself.
It is important that we recognise some of the particular elements that were raised tonight. Noble Lords will have noticed that I had to write a number of notes and send them off because I did not have all the answers. That is a reminder of how important it is to make sure. I hope, therefore, noble Lords will forgive me if there are occasions when I cannot respond adequately tonight. I will do so in writing, because it is important.
Let me touch upon some of the other points that are important for us to draw out. I am reminded of what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said. Peace in Northern Ireland is the ultimate prize but as we have witnessed over the last few days, and as a number of other noble Lords have pointed out, peace is not at the heart of everyone. There are some who would seek to undermine it and pull it down. We saw in Omagh a reflection of the very worst of the horrors that could engulf Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, pointed out, if there is a vacuum, we do not know what will fill it. I return to my noble friend Lord Trimble, who recognised that what has to fill that vacuum is democracy. At heart, it has to be democracy, which recognises that the most important thing facing the people of Northern Ireland is a good health service, the right education and the ability to retire in peace and comfort—the things that we all wish for, whether we are in Northern Ireland, Scotland or elsewhere. Democracy must fill that vacuum. If it does not, we will consign a generation to the horrors that many here have lived through first hand and have seen devastate that Province. That is not the ambition of the UK Government.
It is important that I refer to some of the points brought up by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. I begin by saying that I welcome his support. He made a series of key points, including the question of an independent chair and round-table talks. Let me be frank: nothing is off the table right now. We cannot afford to consign anything to “off the table” because we are at an impasse. Whatever gets us moving is on the table. I assure him that we will not overlook any element.
It may be that we need to look at some of the larger statements that need to be made around transparently making recognisable offers—not concessions—to move things forward. That will not be easy. If it was easy, it would have been done by now. We are at the twilight moment. As the candle flame begins to flicker, we have an opportunity now still to make those moves. That must be done. I am conscious that, if we fail to do so, the opportunity may not arise again for a generation and we shall be engulfed in darkness.
I turn, then, to the question of scrutiny. As we go forward, there will be challenges for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, as I have acknowledged. There may be a role for an Assembly to examine in different ways how we might move this forward. As I said, nothing is off the table. If we can move things forward then let us get moving.
There are challenges. I appreciate that some may believe that the Prime Minister has not been active, but I can assure noble Lords that she has, and that she will continue to be, as we all must be, to make sure that no stone is left unturned as we seek to secure the outcome that I believe all in this House so desire. I am aware that it will not be easy, but as my noble friend Lord Maginnis rightly points out, there is knowledge in this House that must be drawn upon. We cannot turn our back upon it. Too many people here have lived through the realities and too many people here have been part of the change—those who have made that difference. Here, I acknowledge the work of my noble friend Lord Trimble, who has moved so much from where he began his journey to where we are now: moving towards, I hope, a recognition that we cannot simply start and stop but must see progress being made.
I should say in passing that I would not have believed that my noble friend Lord Maginnis is 75. He clearly has aged rather well.
On some of the more serious points raised, there is the question of the paramilitaries. There are notable achievements in this area. The establishment of the joint Paramilitary Crime Taskforce, featuring the PSNI, the NCA and HMRC, is an important step in that direction. It is testament not only to the priority we attach to this issue but to the importance of working closely together to tackle it. However, there are elements of it that I would like to put in writing, if I may, because they require a more detailed explanation. I have received a note from my advisers which simply says that on occasions it is very technical. Where the issues are very technical, I hope your Lordships will forgive me and allow me to write with technical answers. I do not want to mislead noble Lords in any way with my appreciation of this handwriting, which is quite difficult to read.
On the challenges, the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has put his finger on one aspect: the perception. This is not only about the reality; sometimes it is about the shadow and not only the substance. We must recognise that the eyes of the world are on Northern Ireland now. The peace process has been used as a bastion and a guide in many other trouble spots around the world, and it is important that people can see that every possible effort is made as we go forward.
I can assure noble Lords that the reason we have moved in this particular fashion today and yesterday—seemingly, if you like, at the last possible minute—is that we believed that every possible moment had to be given to the talks; not a moment could be spared. I hope noble Lords will forgive the somewhat last-minute element of this debate. It has not been our intention to withhold it but, rather, to give every opportunity to the people sitting around the table.
It is right that we recognise that the talks have reached an impasse and that we now ask ourselves what we can now do differently. We are where we are. That is why I come back to the notion—as other noble Lords have mentioned—that we need to think outside the box. We need to think anew and afresh because we cannot rely on what we have done in the past.
I recognise the comments made by several noble Lords about the importance of transparency. As much transparency as possible should be cast on the talks because the people of Northern Ireland need to know what is going on inside those closed rooms. There needs to be greater communication so that people understand what is going on. They know what is at stake and they need to know exactly what is being done to address that by not only the two large parties but by all concerned. It is not just the Assembly Members who have roles in Northern Ireland; we should look at the council level, which continues to operate in adverse circumstances and under the self-same challenges. I am very conscious of how important that is.
I turn to what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said about having spoken to one of the widows. That was the challenge and she was right to flag it up: politics needs to be about hope. There needs to be a belief that we are able to make progress, that compromises can be made and that the reach-out can be delivered. The very fact that the lady was a widow reminds us what happens when we fail to achieve progress. That is the level of risk we confront, as we have seen again in the device that blessedly did not take lives in Omagh. However, no doubt that vacuum could be filled by the very thing we do not wish to see.
I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I cut short my remarks with one final statement, which is that the Budget must be passed. I do not believe that direct rule is the right outcome for Northern Ireland, and I do not think that any of us here believes it. What must be assured for Northern Ireland is strong, stable and sure governance. The people of Northern Ireland deserve that and it must be at the heart of the discussions as they go forward. If it is not, we are going to enter that period of darkness.
I am aware as I conclude my remarks, given that language has been a part of our discussion, that it might be appropriate to repeat a line from the Scottish poet Robert Burns. He is talking about fleeting moments, those moments which can simply disappear:
“Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white—then melts for ever”.
That is where we are today: the fleeting moment as a snowflake hits the water. We have to recognise that now is the time and this Budget is necessary, but the next step is all the more necessary. The future of Northern Ireland must be decided by a strong and stable Executive, elected by the people of Northern Ireland and focused on the issues that affect them from day to day. We must make sure that the Executive can make their lives better. On that point, I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Second Reading (and remaining stages)
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time, and passed.
House adjourned at 7.56 pm.