Northern Ireland Executive Formation - Statement

– in the House of Lords am 2:49 pm ar 1 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 2:49, 1 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement. This Saturday would mark two years without a fully functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland. That is two years without locally elected Ministers able to take important decisions on Northern Ireland’s schools, hospitals and the broader economy, and, above all, two years in which Northern Ireland has been held back from achieving the massive potential of this unique part of the United Kingdom.

It was nearly two years ago that the then First Minister resigned over the old Northern Ireland protocol. The Government recognised that the protocol did not deliver to the people of Northern Ireland the same freedoms that leaving the EU delivered for the rest of the United Kingdom. As the party of the union, this Conservative Government sought to address those concerns by replacing the protocol with the Windsor Framework. I maintain that the Windsor Framework was, and is, a good deal for Northern Ireland that addresses the issues around the old protocol and sets out a new way forward. However, it alone did not prove sufficient to allow the devolved institutions to function with the cross-community support that is such an essential bedrock of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

So, for the past few months, my team and I have been holding discussions with the Northern Ireland political parties on how we could see the return of the devolved institutions. Those discussions have been long and necessarily tough, but that is testament to the patience of all Northern Ireland’s political leaders, who, as I have seen at first hand, work tirelessly to make sure that Northern Ireland is the most prosperous and safe society it can be. This is particularly true of the honourable Member for Belfast East. It was a pleasure to confirm recently that the Government will support his Bill that seeks to create a dedicated route for eligible Irish nationals who wish to apply for British citizenship. If passed, that legislation would support the close historical and geographical ties between Ireland and the UK, and I commend him for championing that cause.

I am pleased now to be able to outline the package we are announcing today, which has four core elements. First, it further protects Northern Ireland’s place in the UK by demonstrating our commitment to restoring power sharing so that it has the broadest support from across the community in Northern Ireland. I know that I am not alone in believing firmly that the long-term interests of the union are served by persuading those who might not vote for unionist parties, or even think of themselves as unionists, that Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom offers the best future for them and their children. I have always believed that making Northern Ireland work—indeed, making Northern Ireland thrive—is the surest way to safeguard the union, and I commend the DUP for taking bold steps to make that case for the union too.

We will also legislate to reaffirm Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, including as reflected in the Acts of Union. So too will we recognise in domestic law that, with the vital democratic safeguard of the Stormont brake that a new Assembly would wield, the idea of automatic and permanent dynamic alignment of EU law no longer applies. We will also future-proof Northern Ireland’s position within the UK’s internal market against any future protocol that would create a new EU law alignment for Northern Ireland and, with it, barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Secondly, the deal promotes and strengthens the UK internal market, delivering new legislation to guarantee and future-proof unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods to the whole of the UK internal market and ensuring that internal trade within the United Kingdom takes place under a new UK internal market system. Only yesterday, we saw how quickly progress has been made, with a joint legal solution reached with the EU on tariff rate quotas. This solution, to be taken forward at the next UK-EU joint committee, will ensure that Northern Ireland traders can benefit from the UK’s independent free trade policy when importing agri-food goods, reflecting Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK’s customs territory. To maintain that focus on delivering in the interests of businesses for the future, we will put in place new structures, such as a new independent monitoring panel to ensure a practical and pragmatic approach without gold-plating.

Thirdly, this deal will recognise the importance of the connections across the United Kingdom now and in the future. A new UK east-west council will bring businesses and Ministers together to identify the opportunities that unite us across all parts of the United Kingdom, and a new public body—InterTrade UK—will promote and facilitate trade within the United Kingdom, recognising that while international trade is important, so too is the vital trade that occurs within our internal market.

Finally, this deal will help put public services on a sustainable footing, with funding totalling over £3 billion to support Northern Ireland’s public services and provide a solid foundation for the Executive to deliver better outcomes in the day-to-day lives of the people of Northern Ireland. This is part of a financial package I announced before Christmas that will help to address public sector pay pressures; provide an updated Barnett formula for Northern Ireland, now and into the future, reflecting the needs and unique circumstances of the people of Northern Ireland; and give the Executive significant funding to stabilise public finances.

Much of what I am announcing today was the result of a significant period of negotiations between the Government and the Democratic Unionist Party, led by the right honourable Member for Lagan Valley. Many of us in this Chamber last week could not fail to be struck by his unshakeable advocacy on behalf of the unionist cause. The same determination, fortitude and tact was at the heart of his approach in those detailed discussions. Further to his comments in this place last week, I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing support for him in utterly condemning those shameless figures who have tried to threaten and intimidate him for simply doing his job. The right honourable Member is a man who is truly committed to Northern Ireland and the union, and someone who has always worked hard to find solutions and improvements when others have taken the far easier path of simply criticising and heckling from the sidelines.

The result—as I hope honourable Members will agree—is a deal that, taken as a whole, is the right one for Northern Ireland and for the union. With this package, it is now time for elected representatives in Northern Ireland to come together, end two years of impasse and start work again in the interests of the people who elected them. The right honourable Member for Lagan Valley was clear this week that this depended on this Government demonstrating their commitment to the union in not just word but deed. That is just what we will do. Today, I am publishing the details of this deal, but I am also laying the statutory instruments that enshrine several of its commitments in law. Those instruments will be debated in this House tomorrow as an immediate show of good faith.

Once, as I hope they will be, they are passed by this House, I trust we will have the conditions to move onwards and to see Ministers back in post in Stormont swiftly. As they take their places, they will face massive challenges, but so too do they have the tools to grasp them, not least in moving to resolve the public sector pay issues that have been so disruptive. As well as that, they will be able to grasp the opportunities offered by Northern Ireland’s unique economic position and the good will that it enjoys around the world.

It is only right that I acknowledge that, for many in the community, an important part of this will be seeing Michelle O’Neill take her place as First Minister following the democratic mandate she won at the May 2022 Assembly election, recognising that the First and Deputy First Ministers remain equal in law. I look forward to working with the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister and all their colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive to improve the lives of people from all backgrounds, whether unionist, nationalist or other. As we move swiftly to give effect to our commitments, I now urge the parties to do the same by notifying the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly to recall Stormont, electing a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and appointing new Ministers to the Executive.

It is time to build on the progress of the last 25 years. Today, we have presented a plan that will deliver the long-term change that Northern Ireland needs. It will strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the union and guarantee the free flow of goods across the entire United Kingdom. It is only by sticking to this plan that we will become a more united and prosperous country, and I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Llafur 2:58, 1 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it was only last week that we debated the legislation deferring this decision and pondered whether we would arrive at a settlement. The Minister was very coy but, as the result of a great deal of negotiation, we have now arrived at a considerable and significant deal. I congratulate both the Secretary of State on the work that he has obviously done over the last number of months to achieve it and the Minister, who I know will have put in a huge amount of effort and used his great knowledge of Northern Ireland to help ensure that this deal came to fruition. I also put on record my party’s appreciation of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the immense work he has done over the last number of months, against all odds and with grave threats. He has done a great service to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

I also thank the civil servants in Northern Ireland, who have ensured that there has been government there for nearly two years in the absence of an Assembly. They should not be forgotten. The Minister referred to the document. It is a long one—80 pages of decisions that have been taken to ensure that the deal is effective. There are some ingenious solutions there, such as the internal market between Great Britain and Northern Ireland being ensured and guaranteed. Also, now in Northern Ireland we have an internal market—including the east-west council and the InterTrade body that the Minister referred to—as well as the operation of the single market. I hope that those two factors will ensure that Northern Ireland will have access to markets far beyond what businesses in Scotland, Wales or England would have. Above all else, of course, this leads to the restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday agreement: the Executive and the Assembly and, of course, the strand 2 institutions, the north-south bodies. Can the Minister elaborate a little on what might happen with those bodies?

I welcome the financial settlement. At last, we have a needs-based formula for Northern Ireland, as we have in Wales. That has been fought for by the parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the DUP in this Chamber, for some time now. Even though a lot of money, £3.5 billion, is going over to Northern Ireland, the Executive and the Assembly will have a really hard job on their hands to ensure that public services are maintained, particularly the National Health Service, which is in dire straits. Can the Minister tell us, as far as he can, what the next steps will be over the next few days to ensure the restoration of the institutions?

Finally, I think that he would agree that we do not want to see all this happening again. It has been two years since we have had an Assembly. Before that, Sinn Féin brought down the Assembly. Is there a case for the parties in Northern Ireland, helped by the Government, devising a system to ensure that greater stability would occur in Northern Ireland in years to come?

For the moment, I wish the new and first nationalist First Minister of Northern Ireland, the Deputy First Minister and all Members of the Assembly well. It is a good week for Northern Ireland and for the country.

Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating yesterday’s Statement and commend him and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for their dedication and hard work in all their efforts to secure the deal that we are discussing today.

Northern Ireland is in a significantly more hopeful place as a result of this deal, which is greatly to be welcomed. After two years of political vacuum in Northern Ireland, the most important thing is that the Executive and the Assembly can get back to work as soon as possible, for there is so much to do. It is tragic that so much time has been wasted when so much has needed to be done. It has been nearly two years, during which time the healthcare system, education and public services in Northern Ireland have reached crisis point. But, as Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party, said on Tuesday:

“The priority now is where we go from here, not where we have been”.

I am glad that the deal has very much been welcomed in Northern Ireland, at least by the majority. There is a palpable sense of relief, and a recognition across the board that it is surely better for local people to be taking these decisions and, if necessary, pushing for further improvements and further reforms. Once the Assembly and the Executive are fully functioning again, Northern Ireland will have a stronger voice in both Westminster and Brussels. It is also welcome that the funds, the £3.3 billion, can now be released, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said. It is the Executive who will be best placed to decide how this money should be used.

The stalemate of the last two years has served nobody well. Indeed, the stop-start nature of devolution in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement has meant that Northern Ireland has been held back from reaching its full potential. It is unacceptable that, for five of the last seven years, there has been no functioning Executive.

But people and businesses in Northern Ireland need to know that this deal will last. As was said many times during debate on the Statement in the House of Commons yesterday, there needs to be a bedrock of stability so that it is no longer possible for one party to collapse the Executive. Like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I would be grateful if the Minister can confirm that he will, with the parties in Northern Ireland, examine ways to ensure that the stability of the institutions can be better protected in future.

As has been said, particularly in the House of Commons, this is now an opportunity for Northern Ireland: an opportunity to ensure that it is a place where people want to invest and where families want to choose to come and live. There is so much potential, and I sincerely hope that, this time, this agreement will last.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for their support for the deal reached by my right honourable friend that was announced yesterday. In response to the noble Lord, he talked about this as a considerable achievement. He knows from his own experience as the negotiator of strand 1 back in 1998, just how difficult and challenging these issues are and can be. I am grateful for what he said and will of course pass on his congratulations to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, which I know will be greatly appreciated.

The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, also mentioned the contribution of civil servants. I completely agree that they have done a fantastic job in Northern Ireland, keeping public services running and, in many respects, really holding society together there. In addition, I put on record my thanks to officials, both in the Northern Ireland Office and the Cabinet Office, for the outstanding work that they have done in pulling together the deal that was announced yesterday.

I also place on record that I agree with the noble Lord about the contribution of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. I have known Jeffrey since 1988, believe it or not, so we go back some way. As the Secretary of State mentioned in his Statement, he has always been a true unionist, committed to making Northern Ireland a safer, more prosperous and better place. I really do commend the contribution that Sir Jeffrey has made to this outcome.

The noble Lord referred to the guarantees around the internal market, which are of course very important. Northern Ireland’s biggest trading partner by far is Great Britain, which is by far the most important market for Northern Ireland. We are confident that, as a result of what has been agreed now, there will be a smooth flow of goods circulating throughout the United Kingdom. He was right to highlight the benefits that will bring to Northern Ireland, alongside the privileged access that it will retain for goods moving into the EU single market. That should be a huge selling point for the newly restored Executive in working with the UK Government to try to attract foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland. It really gives Northern Ireland some unique advantages that are not available anywhere else.

The noble Lord referred to the strand 2 bodies. As noble Lords throughout the House are aware, the Belfast agreement is a three-stranded agreement, all of which strands are interlocking and dependent upon each other. Without strand 1 in operation, the Assembly and Executive, the strand 2 bodies have not been able to function properly or to realise the hopes and objectives for them that were contained in the 1998 agreement. With the restoration of the Assembly and Executive, those strand 2 bodies will start to function fully again, along with the strand 3 bodies. For the past couple of years, there have been notable absentees from the meetings of the British-Irish Council, for example, with two empty chairs for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. I look forward to the next meeting of the BIC and seeing the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister taking their rightful places in those bodies.

The noble Lord also made reference to the financial package and strongly welcomed the sums available. It is a significant package, alongside a new Barnett formula. Going forward, the formula will be subject to negotiation between the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Executive. What has been agreed around that is very positive for Northern Ireland and will significantly help an incoming Executive to meet some of the very real challenges the noble Lord raised, and which I fully acknowledge, in the coming months and years.

The noble Lord asked about the next steps. The next step is for the parties to approach the Speaker to recall the Northern Ireland Assembly. The first item of business will be to elect a new Speaker. Thereafter it will be to appoint a new First and Deputy First Minister. The next step is to run the d’Hondt system, which the noble Lord knows only too well, in order to allocate the Ministers from each of the parties who are eligible to take up places in the Executive. Hopefully, that will all happen very swiftly. I cannot give a precise timetable. One of the reasons the other place is debating the statutory instruments today, only one day after publication, is as a clear signal of our intent that this moves as quickly as possible, and we get the institutions back up and running in the shortest possible timeframe.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked about trying to introduce reforms and measures to promote greater resilience of the institutions and to prevent a similar scenario—one party pulling down the institutions—happening again. We all recall that, between 2017 and 2020, Sinn Féin did that and of course we are familiar with the history of the past two years. It is something that, at some point, I personally think we will need to look at, and the Government have always made it very clear that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has never been set in tablets of stone. There is the capacity for it to evolve, as it did at St Andrews in 2006, and changes were made after the Stormont House agreement in 2014. We have always been open, as I have said on a number of occasions in this House, to sensible reforms, so long as those reforms command cross-community support and are consistent with the underlying and enduring principles of the Belfast agreement.

The priority for now must be to get the institutions back up and running, established and functioning, supported by the financial package, to finalise the programme for government and then to start tackling the really tough challenges the Executive face. Thereafter, I think there is room for a sensible debate about how we can possibly prevent this happening in future. For now, we should focus on re-establishing the institutions and getting things up and running with the support of the UK Government and, where appropriate under the three-stranded approach, the Irish Government. They will be supporting and helping the Executive to get stuck into the challenges and to start building that brighter, stronger, more prosperous future for Northern Ireland, which I have always maintained, along with my right honourable friend, is the surest foundation for strengthening our union.

Photo of Lord Dodds of Duncairn Lord Dodds of Duncairn DUP 3:13, 1 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is good that we will have bodies like InterTrade UK and an east-west council. These are positive developments, as are the new needs-based budget provisions and the new model. I commend and congratulate all those who have been involved in the talks, who have approached it in good faith and with integrity.

However, will the noble Lord accept—noble Lords in this House need to realise this—that there are still many unionists who are deeply worried and concerned about the Irish Sea border? We must drill down into the details of this deal. The Irish Sea border still exists because many British goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, especially in manufacturing, still need to go through full EU compliance checks and procedures? While we have the new green lane— renamed—which is mainly for retail, the default position is as I have described for everything else that does not have an end point for sale in Northern Ireland.

Will the Minister, who knows Northern Ireland very well, confirm the concern among many unionists about the continued sovereignty, jurisdiction and application of EU laws over large swathes of our economy—in 300 areas—to which the Stormont brake does not apply? We cannot make or amend laws in those areas. These are fundamentally important constitutional and economic issues, and many unionists are still concerned about them. Although there are improvements to the operation of the Windsor Framework, which in itself was a tweak to the original protocol, the fundamentals of it remain in place. Can the Minister confirm today what provisions of the framework itself are changed by this deal? Can he lay them out? Will he confirm that the SIs currently being debated in the other place do not come into law until they are passed by this House on 13 February, if they are indeed passed?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, for his words, and I welcome his positive remarks about a number of the new bodies, such as InterTrade UK and the new east-west council. He made a number of points on the so-called Irish Sea border that have been made on a number of occasions by members of his party and other political parties in Northern Ireland. I am sorry to say to him that the Government take a very different view as a result of the deal that has been agreed over the past few days, as indeed, I gently point out, does his party leader, who, along with the Government, now accepts that what we have agreed is a firm basis for going back into the institutions and re-establishing the Executive and Assembly at Stormont. We simply do not recognise that what the noble Lord describes is anything like a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As a result of this deal, the number of goods that will pass into Northern Ireland from Great Britain without checks will be significantly increased.

The noble Lord referred to EU law, and I will repeat what I have said on many previous occasions. By the EU’s own calculation, the amount of EU law that will apply in Northern Ireland is under 3% and is there solely for the purpose of dealing with goods going from Great Britain via Northern Ireland into the single market. We have in place some important and robust new democratic scrutiny structures to prevent new EU laws applying where they are not desirable or appropriate for Northern Ireland. That is all set out in the Command Paper.

On the noble Lord’s final point, as I pointed out in the Statement, that legislation will reaffirm in the clearest possible terms Northern Ireland’s position as an integral part of this United Kingdom. It will guarantee and future-proof the smooth circulation of goods throughout the United Kingdom internal market. As a matter of fact, he is right that those SIs will not become law until they have passed your Lordships’ House.

Photo of Lord Reid of Cardowan Lord Reid of Cardowan Llafur

My Lords, I welcome the Statement. It has been a frustrating two years, but it would be churlish for anyone not to say, “Well done”, particularly to the Minister and his colleagues and, above all, to Jeffrey Donaldson. Like the Minister, I have known him for many years, and he has served his country and this country well, in and out of uniform, unlike some of his extremist critics, as he pointed out.

I wish the Assembly well when it is up, but I am not naive enough to believe that there will not be further huge bumps on the road. I cannot criticise anyone for suspending the Assembly because I did it myself when I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, because the IRA refused to decommission its weaponry. It is an unfortunate reality that the present construction leaves it open to a number of parties, including the British Government, to suspend the Assembly.

I think it would be wise for the Minister to agree that the mechanics of this need to be looked at again, but even wiser to recognise that it has to be done with great caution and has to be led by the parties in Northern Ireland themselves. In the meantime, will the Minister ensure the most expeditious passage not only of the legislation but of the practical operational implementation of the agreement? It is precisely the proof of the pudding being in the eating that will avoid problems arising in the immediate future.

In the meantime, I send my best wishes to all the Members of the Assembly, who will be able to meet joyously together for the first time in a long while, and to the prospective new First Minister, Michelle O’Neill. Twenty-five years ago, I do not think any of us envisaged this sort of position being accepted by the community in Northern Ireland as a whole; therefore, let us recognise the advances that have been made as well as the problems that still face us.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am very grateful to the former Secretary of State for his comments and commend him for the work he did as Secretary of State in trying to move Northern Ireland forward after 1998—in particular at Weston Park in, I think, 2001. I also endorse what he said about Sir Jeffrey. In my comments, I failed to mention the fact that Sir Jeffrey had a distinguished career in the Ulster Defence Regiment: we should recall that, and it is in sharp contrast to some of those who are now issuing threats and seeking to intimidate. He put on uniform to serve his country and we should not forget that.

The noble Lord referred to suspensions. I suspect I am right in saying that he holds the record for the number of times he suspended the institutions—with, I should add, our support at the time and our agreement when he did the right thing. He is absolutely right that we should be cautious in our approach to reform, but, as I said, sensible and practical reforms ought to be considered where they are consistent with the agreement. I think the noble Lord is right in saying that the conversation should be led primarily by the parties in the Executive and in the Assembly. The history of trying to impose reforms and solutions on Northern Ireland without the consent of the people is not necessarily a happy one. Finally, I entirely agree about implementation: the Government are committed to doing it as swiftly as possible.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords), Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I am mindful that we are almost half way through the Back-Bench speaking time, so if noble Lords could keep their questions crisp—and I know my noble friend the Minister will keep his answers crisp—we might get through everyone who wants to speak.

Photo of Lord Rogan Lord Rogan Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, in a Parliamentary Written Answer on 6 December 2023, the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, advised me:

“£30 million has been reserved for Northern Ireland from Levelling Up Fund round 3”.

Can I have an assurance from the Minister that this ring-fenced money is in addition to the £3.3 billion package to fill the hole in Northern Ireland’s finances? Further, can he tell me when the levelling up fund money promised to Northern Ireland will finally be released?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I appreciate that he has a particular interest in this area and is involved in one of the potential bids for levelling up fund money in Coleraine. As to the details, I am not in a position to give him an answer now, but I will endeavour to write to him very rapidly.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, the return of the Assembly is of course wholly welcome, but the agreement reached yesterday has implications for the whole of the United Kingdom, and many of us are concerned that it implies, in subtle and less subtle ways, a greater degree of alignment for the United Kingdom with European Union legislation, and therefore the slowing of the opportunities that are available to us from Brexit to enhance the prosperity of the country over time. But there is a more optimistic alternative view.

One of the effects of this agreement, in practice, is to introduce mutual recognition to the trading of goods in Northern Ireland, where European Union goods and British goods can circulate to different standards, provided they are destined to remain in Northern Ireland. This is a process that was ridiculed when it was put forward during the negotiations as being wholly undeliverable, but now we see it happening on the ground. So will my noble friend say whether His Majesty’s Government see the opportunity to build on this so that Northern Ireland can actually winkle its way out, eventually, from under undemocratic EU rule and remain part of the United Kingdom, as envisaged in the Good Friday agreement, for as long as the people of Northern Ireland, by a majority, support that position?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I welcome the fact that my noble friend supports the restoration of the institution; where I part company is on the issue of alignment. There is absolutely nothing in this deal that prevents the United Kingdom diverging from European rules and European law, should Ministers believe that is in the interests of the UK. Fundamentally, that will be a matter for the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which remains sovereign. Indeed, the pipeline of automatic alignment is ended through this agreement by the introduction of the new robust democratic safeguards and checks, such as the Stormont brake.

So far as my noble friend’s final comments are concerned, there is absolutely no diminution in Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom. As the statutory instruments make clear, Northern Ireland is a full integral part of the United Kingdom and of its internal market.

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench

My Lords, I am very glad to add to the congratulations to the Minister, who has been central to the success of this process. In the other place, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland talked about a breakdown of trust between the United Kingdom Government and the local parties. One of the people who has worked hardest to restore that trust is the Minister.

Does the Minister agree that this is in fact also a tribute to three Prime Ministers, who worked very hard from the beginning of this Parliament, with great difficulty and often very slowly, and often under great criticism in this House, to put the Good Friday agreement back in place? This includes the commitment in the agreement to address the alienation of one or other community—in this case it was the unionist community, but not that long ago it was the Irish nationalist community on the Irish language question—and to act in the spirit of the Good Friday agreement by putting that at the centre of affairs in a way which makes quite a dramatic change.

The Minister will remember us both studying the 2018 withdrawal agreement. There was no mention at all of a role for the Northern Irish Assembly—look how far we have moved in that respect. The December 2017 agreement between this Government and Europe committed the British Government to supporting an all-island economy, which then fuelled all those in the TUV, for example, to believe that that means a politically united Ireland. In fact, 25 years ago they said the same thing about the Good Friday agreement. Does the Minister agree that that scenario has also passed as a result of the Command Paper?

Finally, does the Minister agree that there was a certain irony when we debated the Bill of the Johnson Government in this House? I can remember being told very firmly that the DUP will always let you down. Does he think that we can now smile at that? I should say that was from the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Nottingham.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Lord, who is my good friend, for his kind words. I pay tribute to him for the many hours of work he put into this process behind the scenes in bringing us to this place—and, if I am allowed to say, to members of his wider family. In the interests of brevity, I endorse entirely his comments. I reiterate my tribute to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for the fantastic work they have done in bringing us to this place.

Photo of Lord Jackson of Peterborough Lord Jackson of Peterborough Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend; I have known him for a long time, since our work together in the Northern Ireland Office. Of course, we all welcome the re-establishment of the devolved Administration. On territorial integrity, are we not, in these statutory instruments, codifying in statute the subjugation and suspension of Article VI of the Acts of Union? The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, mentioned the issue of EU law continuing in Northern Ireland and the sea border remaining. Does not having to apply for authorisation for trade in your own country, of necessity, simply fetter trade, as between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? The commitment to protect the trade flows between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in respect of a permanent guarantee, is contained only in the Command Paper and does not have a statutory basis. Might not a future Government very well disregard it in the absence of bespoke legislation?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My noble friend will be aware that the statutory instrument, which we will have the opportunity to debate at length, reaffirms the supremacy of UK law, including the Acts of Union, in respect of Northern Ireland. On the trade issue, the aim of the second statutory instrument is to future-proof Northern Ireland’s position within the UK internal market. Of course, no Parliament can bind its successors, but the statutory instrument would ensure that any changes would require changes in law.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

My Lords, it is a fact that in any agreement the devil will be in the detail; therefore, can we have clarification? Does Northern Ireland remain under EU single market laws for production of food and agri-food? Do His Majesty’s Government believe that the Irish Sea border has fundamentally been changed? Is there a fundamental change to the Windsor Framework or is it still operational, and will Northern Ireland be able to enjoy UK state aid like every other part of the United Kingdom, without reference to the EU?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The Government are absolutely confident that this deal will guarantee the smooth flow of goods throughout the United Kingdom. That is not just the opinion of the Government but of the noble Lord’s party leader, on which basis he has advised his party to go back into the Northern Ireland Executive. We will have a chance to debate these points more fully, in the interests of other speakers. I am sure we will come back to them during the debate.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

I rise to reflect the views of the Green Party in Northern Ireland and join everyone here in welcoming the end of limbo, but I stress that a return to the current form of devolved government is not a cure-all. Does the Minister agree that the return of the Executive has to happen in a framework of understanding the need to do things differently? In particular, empowering local communities through more local democracy and activities such as local people’s assemblies will be very helpful going forward.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Those will of course all be matters for the new Executive to take forward, not for His Majesty’s Government to impose. However, I am sure that they will take note of the comments of the noble Baroness.

Photo of Lord Godson Lord Godson Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I join my noble friend the Minister in welcoming this Command Paper, Safeguarding the Union, which by common consent constitutes the most extensive set of commitments in decades, by any Government, to strengthening the union, and thus fulfils many of the consent principles enshrined in the 1998 Belfast agreement. Of course, this needs to be set in the broader context of this Government’s pro-union commitments, not least of which—I seek my noble friend’s thoughts on this—was the recent legacy legislation whereby the Government also pushed back at Dublin’s intemperate response to the very necessary legislation in this House, which he took forward here, to protect our service men and women and others besides. Does he therefore agree that the time has surely come for unionists of all hues to recognise this Government’s commitment to the union and to strengthening our United Kingdom, and for them to row behind that?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I pay tribute to my noble friend for the work he has done on the Northern Ireland protocol sub-committee over the past few years and for the work of his think tank, Policy Exchange, which has helped frame the debate around a number of issues connected with the Northern Ireland protocol. I agree entirely with his comments about the Government. Anybody reading the Command Paper can be in no doubt that this is a unionist Government committed, within the terms of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, to the maintenance and strengthening of Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom. As somebody who is an unashamed and unapologetic unionist, I strongly welcome that.