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Northern Ireland Political Situation

Statement

  1. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government and Northern Ireland Office (Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth) (Con)

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

    “With permission, I would like to make a Statement about the political situation in Northern Ireland. As the House will recall, following the resignation of Martin McGuinness, the then Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, in January, an election took place to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 2 March. Despite intensive discussions in the three weeks following the election, the Northern Ireland parties were unable to reach agreement on the formation of a new Executive.

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    In order to facilitate further discussions between the parties, Parliament passed legislation immediately prior to Dissolution extending the period in which an Executive could be formed until 29 June. Last Thursday, 29 June, I made a statement in Belfast setting out that, while differences remained between the parties, progress had been made and that it was still possible for resolution to be achieved. I urged the parties to continue focusing their efforts on this, with the full support of the United Kingdom Government and, as appropriate, the Irish Government. In that regard, I want to recognise the contribution of the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, and his predecessor, Charlie Flanagan.

    In the past few days since the passing of the deadline, further progress has continued to be made, including on the most challenging issues, such as language, culture and identity. Gaps remain between the parties, but these are few in number and on a defined group of issues. The Government remain committed to working with the parties, and the Irish Government, to find a way to close these gaps quickly in order to reach an agreement that will pave the way for the restoration of devolved government. The Prime Minister has been actively involved, following on from her meetings with each of the parties, including speaking to Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill on Friday night. I continue to believe that a deal remains achievable, and if agreement is reached I will bring forward legislation to enable an Executive to be formed, possibly as early as this week, but time is short.

    It has been six months since a full Executive was in place to represent the people of Northern Ireland. In that time it has been civil servants, not politicians, who have made decisions on spending. Without political direction, it has not been possible for strategic decisions to be made about priorities in areas such as education and health. This has created pressures that need to be addressed, and it has led to understandable concern and uncertainty among businesses and those relying on public services alike. This hiatus cannot simply continue for much longer. There is no doubt that the best outcome is for a new Executive to make those strategic decisions in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. It should be for a new Executive to make swift decisions on their Budget to make use of the considerable spending power available to them.

    While engagement between the parties continues and there is a prospect of an agreement this week, it is right that those discussions remain our focus. At the same time, we will not forget our ultimate responsibility as a Government to uphold political stability and good governance in Northern Ireland. In April, I made a Written Ministerial Statement that sought to provide clarity for those civil servants charged with allocating cash in Northern Ireland to assist them in the discharge of their responsibilities, but there remains resource available, including £42 million from the spring Budget and any further budget transfers as may be agreed, which is as yet unallocated. If we do not see resolution in the coming days, we will need to reflect carefully upon whether further clarity will be required for Northern Ireland Permanent Secretaries around those resources”.

    My Statement seems to have run out of pages. I do not think that is all of it.

  2. Baroness Wheeler (Lab)

    The Minister may have my copy.

  3. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    That is most kind. I am most grateful for the cross-party spirit on this issue, which I hope continues.

    “In that situation, we would also need to reflect carefully on how we might allocate the funding made available to address immediate health and education pressures as set out in Monday’s Statement on United Kingdom government financial support for Northern Ireland, recognising Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances, and, if no agreement is reached, legislation in Westminster may then be required to give authority for the expenditure of Northern Ireland departments through an appropriations Bill. From my conversations with the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, we have not quite reached that critical point yet, but that point is coming and the lack of a formal Budget is not something that can be sustained indefinitely. Similarly, decisions on capital expenditure and infrastructure and public service reforms in key sectors, such as the health service, cannot be deferred for much longer.

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    One area on which there is much consensus, however, is on the need for greater transparency around political donations. In line with the commitment set out in the Conservative Party’s Northern Ireland manifesto at the general election, I can confirm that I intend to bring forward legislation that will provide for the publication of all donations and loans received by Northern Ireland parties on or after 1 July 2017.

    All of this reinforces further the importance of the parties coming together and reaching an agreement, and it sets out, too, some of the hard choices that we face if uncertainty persists. I am also conscious that, with the deadline now passed, I am under a duty to set a date for a new election. I will continue to keep that duty under review, but it seems unlikely that that would of itself resolve the current political impasse or the ultimate need for political decision-making, however we proceed. As the Government for the whole United Kingdom, we will always govern in the interests of all those within the United Kingdom, and so if resolution were to prove intractable, and an Executive could not be restored, we would of course be ready to do what is needed to provide that political decision-making in the best interests of Northern Ireland, but I am clear that the return of inclusive, devolved government by a power-sharing Executive is what would be best for Northern Ireland, and that will remain our overriding focus in the crucial days ahead.

    The UK Government will continue to govern in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland by providing political stability and keeping an open and sustained dialogue with the parties and with the Irish Government, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach. I stand ready to do what is necessary to facilitate the quick formation of an Executive once an agreement is reached, and I commend this Statement to the House”.

  1. Lord McAvoy (Lab)

    My Lords, first, I welcome the Minister to his new post. I have had many dealings with him in the past and I look forward to continuing negotiations. I place on record my appreciation for his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop. I think most folk would agree that we maintained the cross-party consensus, which in many ways was due to the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop. I therefore place on record our appreciation of his efforts.

    I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We know that the Secretary of State, the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, his predecessor Charlie Flanagan, and all the Northern Irish parties have been working hard to try to narrow the gap on outstanding issues, notably on the question of the status of the Irish language and respect for all languages, culture and heritage in Northern Ireland. We welcome the fact that the Secretary of State did not come before Parliament today to announce that the shutters are coming down on the talks in Belfast.

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    People in Belfast and across Northern Ireland will have heard the Secretary of State’s contention that there remains “the prospect” of a deal this week. If that is achieved, then he will enjoy our full support in passing any necessary legislation to enable the Executive to reform and the Assembly to meet. But I think there will be frustration among many Northern Ireland citizens that a full six months after the Executive broke down and little more than a week before 12 July—the high point of the marching season—we remain at this impasse.

    Without departing from the consensus which has existed for many years between the Government and ourselves, and indeed with the Liberals, some hard questions must now be asked about what more the Government can do to assist the parties in moving forward. It is encouraging that the Prime Minister picked up the phone on Friday night to the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein. But would the Minister comment on the suggestion—the point was made in the House of Commons, and I am sure it will be made here as well—that the Prime Minister might be more effective if she were to get on a plane to Belfast herself? History has shown that it has often required direct intervention from the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to bridge the divide in Belfast. We have the examples of Tony Blair and Sir John Major, who made great efforts when things looked extremely difficult there. It remains unclear why there is a perception that the current run of Conservative Prime Ministers have proved reluctant to take personal responsibility to try and break the deadlock.

    In fact, many might believe that the current Prime Minister has a particular duty to be more involved, as it was her decision to call an election which pushed the talks so close to the 12 July commemorations and led to her reliance on the Democratic Unionist Party that other parties have today cited as a factor in the talks. We agree with the Secretary of State that:

    “This hiatus cannot simply continue for much longer”.

    But I hope we might hear more from the Minister about how the Government intend to bring it to a positive end with the restoration of the Executive. If not greater hands-on engagement by the Prime Minster, as I and others have suggested, does he think there is a role for a new, independent, potentially international chair to come in with fresh eyes and a powerful mandate to support the efforts of the British and Irish Governments? Again I refer to the past, when that has also been an effective means of shifting things.

    I note the warning by the Secretary of State that, if a way forward cannot be found, he will have to bring forward budgetary transfers to provide clarity and resources for the Northern Ireland Civil Service. That may well be necessary, and if so, again the Government will have the full co-operation of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. But I am sure the Minister agrees that it is profoundly unsatisfactory that major decisions about public services and other measures continue to be taken by unelected civil servants, no matter how competent. On the matter of an appropriations Bill, the Minister will be aware that some will see that effectively as a measure of direct rule. I am sure this is a position that the Government wish to avoid, and we urge the Secretary of State to consider all alternatives before we take such a backwards step.

    I welcome the decision that the Secretary of State has taken today to legislate for publication of all political loans and donations received by political parties on or after 1 July. That is an important step in normalising the politics of Northern Ireland. Do the Government intend that the thresholds that apply to the publication of donations in the rest of the UK will be those that are applied in Northern Ireland?

    This House has played a terrific part in helping peace in Northern Ireland, and I am sure that everyone here will agree that Northern Ireland needs its Assembly and Executive up and running as soon as possible. There is no greater illustration of that than the Brexit negotiations, which we are entering with no real means of Northern Ireland’s voice—the voice of all its communities and traditions, and opinions on Brexit—being heard around the negotiating table. That, I am sure the Minister will agree, cannot be right. All of us, including on this side of the House, must redouble our efforts to see the Executive, and with it the voice of Northern Ireland, strengthened and restored.

  2. Baroness Suttie (LD)

    My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and welcome him to his new role—he is certainly starting at an interesting and challenging time for Northern Ireland. I also place on record my tribute to his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop. Given the importance of the issue, however, I wonder why this was not a Prime Ministerial Statement today.

    When we last discussed these issues, just before the election, there was a degree of optimism that genuine progress could be made. Indeed, for a time last week, it appeared that good progress was being made. However, with the passing of Thursday’s deadline, and even with the short continuation of talks over the weekend, we once again find ourselves in an impasse. This is an extremely disappointing development, and it is frustrating to watch from here the way in which the two largest parties in Northern Ireland appear to have backed themselves into a corner when there are undoubtedly creative solutions to be found.

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    The increase in turnout of some 10.6% between the 2016 and 2017 Assembly elections demonstrates the strong commitment of the people of Northern Ireland to devolved government, and I can well understand the frustration of ordinary people in Northern Ireland at this latest setback.

    As the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has already said, there has been no ministerial direction in the devolved departments for a number of months. Decisions on how to allocate budgets are being missed, and all this has a direct impact on public services and jobs. Can the Minister give an indication of how today’s Statement will help to change the dynamics in the talks process? As well as the damage that is being done to Northern Ireland’s economy and public services, it is vital at this time for Northern Ireland to have its own voice in the Brexit negotiations. Can the Minister tell us who speaks for Northern Ireland on Brexit?

    The confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP in Westminster has understandably caused concern about how the Government can fulfil their role in independently mediating the Belfast Good Friday agreement. Can the Minister explain how they will demonstrate the “rigorous impartiality” needed, as set out in the Good Friday agreement?

    Bringing together my last two points, can he tell us how the voices of all parties in Northern Ireland—including those which won seats in the Assembly in March but do not sit on the Government’s co-ordinating committee—will have their voices heard on the vital issues of governance of Northern Ireland and of the Brexit negotiations?

    Although I welcome the introduction of legislation on party donations, does the Minister agree that for the legislation to have the desired effect of returning confidence to the party-political process in Northern Ireland, it should be backdated to 2014? Finally, can the Minister say whether he believes that this is a genuine postponement, or are we just delaying the inevitable?

  3. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their contributions and their kind words of welcome. I also very much endorse what they said about my noble friend Lord Dunlop, who has given great service in this role and continues to be a source of very valuable information and advice. I am most grateful to him.

    To take up some of the points made by the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, first, I am most grateful for the endorsement of the bipartisan approach that we seek, which I am sure extends to the Liberal Democrats as well, in relation to the Belfast agreement. We are wedded to that, as indeed everybody in Northern Ireland seems to be—it is just about ensuring that we complete the last phase of these discussions so that we can take things forward. The issues that remain to be resolved are relatively narrow, and I can understand, and indeed share, the general frustration felt by the Front Benches. I am sure it is widely felt. The Secretary of State has worked tirelessly to seek an agreement, and the issues are becoming tighter and narrower. There is the prospect of an agreement, and I can certainly confirm that the shutters are not coming down in any way at all. We are very much wedded to getting a deal, and there is the prospect of one following the approach that we take.

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    The suggestion is made of the greater involvement of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has been closely involved; she spoke to the five parties in Northern Ireland, to which I think the noble Baroness was referring, as recently as Friday. Talks with the two leaders, Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster, continued on Saturday, and she has spoken to the Taoiseach on a number of occasions as well, so those discussions are going on. I caution about always rushing for the involvement of the Prime Minister because that has not always paid dividends in Northern Ireland and does not necessarily help. As I say, the issues are being driven forward, and it is for the two main parties to hammer out the deal between them.

    On the noble Baroness’s question about the involvement of the other parties, I should say that they have been having their discussions as well. At the moment the main focus has of course been on the discussions between the two main parties, as you would expect, but the others have been involved in discussions of their own because, once an agreement is made, which I certainly hope and believe will be the case, the deal then has to be completed with their involvement.

    I thank noble Lords for their indications of support for the donations and loans Bill that will be forthcoming. Retrospective legislation is not always wise, let us say, so it will be carried forward from the date of announcement, which I think is the usual way of these things. As I say, though, I thank noble Lords for their general welcome.

    I think I have picked up the main points. I welcome noble Lords’ continuing support, and of course we will update the House on the progress of the discussions, which are at a crucial and, we hope, successful stage.

  1. Lord Kilclooney (CB)

    My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his position and thank him for repeating the Statement on Northern Ireland. I am particularly pleased at his optimism that a power-sharing Executive is still achievable in Northern Ireland, because that is what we negotiated in the Belfast agreement.

    Living near the border and knowing Sinn Fein inside out as I do, I ask the Minister whether he realises that one of the joys for Sinn Fein is to bash the British. He will understand that minority Governments are unstable institutions, and we have a minority Government in southern Ireland depending on Fianna Fail support. We are likely to have an election in southern Ireland, and it would certainly be helpful to Sinn Fein if it could continue to bash the British from now until that election takes place. So the Minister’s optimism may be misplaced.

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    In welcoming the new Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Ireland—after all, it is a foreign country with a Foreign Minister—does the Minister realise that when we negotiated the Belfast agreement, the then Foreign Minister of the Republic, David Andrews, was expelled and excluded from all strand one talks? Does he now recognise that last week on the front pages of daily papers in both the Republic and Northern Ireland there was much criticism of the new Foreign Minister of the Republic for interfering in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, and that that has upset a lot of people across Northern Ireland and is particularly unhelpful? Lastly, will the Minister confirm that, although there are many options if we do not have direct rule, one of the options is still direct rule?

  2. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words of welcome. I am indeed optimistic, but then it could perhaps be pointed out that I am new to the job so I do not know whether that is just an occupational hazard.

    Discussions are going forward involving all three strands of the Belfast agreement. Discussions have been undertaken between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach and between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Foreign Minister of Ireland, and it is appropriate that they should as provided for in the Belfast agreement. As I say, we are entering a crucial stage. It is important that we look forward rather than back. I have a lot to learn but I think looking forward is probably a good idea in Northern Ireland, and I think it is what people are focused on.

  3. Lord Hain (Lab)

    My Lords, when exactly was the involvement of the Prime Minister, as he said, negative? I would like to know. The default position for anyone who has done the job is to support the Secretary of State regardless of party. However, I really feel that the Government have lost the plot, and have done so now for a period. My noble friend Lord Murphy was the first to say some six months ago that it was necessary to convene a summit of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to resolve the problem, but that did not happen. Deadlines have been set and passed with equanimity with no downside for any of the parties concerned. In addition, there is a massive democratic deficit in Northern Ireland now at a time when Brexit requires Northern Ireland’s voice to be heard, as Wales’s and Scotland’s voices are being heard through their Governments more than ever before.

    Lastly, I want to ask about the donations Bill. Does the Minister accept that there is real concern that it will hit one side of the community, particularly the nationalist parties? I do not think that legislation is helpful at a time when the Government already stand accused of being partisan and dependent on their deal with one party in Northern Ireland to keep the Prime Minister afloat.

  4. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his contribution. He comes with past experience of the job. He will know that deadlines have been set in the past; this is nothing new. I fully agree with what he says about the democratic deficit. It was inherent in the Statement that we need a power-sharing Executive because of budgetary issues and involvement in issues such as Brexit as well as many others. I do not disagree with him on that at all. All I can say is that work is progressing and there is a narrowing of the disagreements, so there is the prospect of a deal.

    On the question of the donations legislation, obviously there will be a chance to discuss this when it is presented to Parliament but I would say that it has been welcomed by the opposition Front Benches both in the House of Commons and here. There will be a chance to scrutinise it as it goes through both Houses.

  5. Lord Empey (UUP)

    My Lords, while much has been made of disrespect and respect, who is respecting the more than a quarter of a million people who are on hospital waiting lists, over 53,000 of whom have been waiting for over 12 months to see a consultant? Who is respecting the interests of the victims of the historical institutional inquiry that people have been waiting a lifetime for but is lying idle and unattended to on the shelf in Stormont? Who is paying any respect or even attention to the schools that will reconvene in September not knowing whether they have budgets that can carry them through the entire year? This shame and disgrace have been going on now for over six months. While I am entirely in favour of people treating each other with respect, the vast majority of people who are on these waiting lists are being treated disrespectfully. Will the Minister be kind enough to pass that message on to his right honourable friend and ensure that those people have their legitimate needs and concerns properly addressed, openly and clearly?

  6. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for raising those issues. He will of course be aware that on a day-to-day basis, health spending and education spending are being carried forward in Northern Ireland because it is important that we have appropriate government there. What is not happening, as he did not allude to directly but I am sure he intended to, is that strategic decisions are not being made at the moment. That again refers to the democratic deficit, which we must seek to fill. At the moment the head of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland has indicated that the Civil Service is in a position to keep matters running, but the noble Lord is right to say that this could not go on indefinitely and that there is a democratic deficit. There is indeed.

  7. Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)

    My Lords, the Minister knows that a drift to direct rule is very easy and will be disastrous, but that to get out of direct rule is much more difficult. He knows that every successful agreement in Northern Ireland—the Good Friday agreement, the St Andrews agreement and others—has rested on important prime ministerial involvement. None of those agreements would have been possible unless the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach together talked to the parties and leaders in Northern Ireland. I take the point about the Taoiseach, but, where appropriate, the Taoiseach can be involved. Phone calls are not good enough. The Prime Minister needs to go to Belfast to talk to the parties concerned, because the British and Irish Governments are co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement.

    Finally, the Minister has enormous experience of Welsh politics and government, and he knows that you can have a language Act without the union being jeopardised. I hope that he can bring that experience to bear in the talks that lie ahead.

  8. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, for his contribution. Once again, he did not allude to his personal experience, but I know that he has vast experience in Northern Ireland in many respects, not least as Secretary of State.

    I agree about the involvement and engagement of the Prime Minister. That is important, and it is happening. The Prime Minister is constantly involved, but the lead at the moment rests with the Secretary of State. He is very much involved with the talks, flying backwards and forwards to Northern Ireland, engaging with the parties and progressing things. While that remains the case, I think that that is the best approach.

  9. Baroness O'Loan (CB)

    My Lords, it is nearly two years since the Northern Ireland Assembly did anything bar pass a Finance Act. I do not know whether your Lordships are aware of the consequences of that—the noble Lord, Lord Empey, spelled out some of them. Where does the Secretary of State’s optimism come from? I looked at the response of the political parties to the Statement. Sinn Fein says that there will be no agreement in the short term, the DUP says that Sinn Fein is introducing more demands, the Ulster Unionists are saying that there is no further clarity and Colum Eastwood says that we are on the path to direct rule. That is actually what the people of Northern Ireland think. We do not know what is happening, but it looks like we are on the way to direct rule.

    Can the Minister do something useful that would raise spirits in Northern Ireland? That might be handing over the money for legacy inquests and giving effect to that one small part of the rule of law which has been neglected in Northern Ireland. Secondly, could he look at having an Act on party donations? Could we have something that will provide pensions for those young people who were terribly injured in the Troubles and who now have no pensions and no money? Could he think about providing other support for the victims and injured in the Troubles, because no one is helping them?

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    We all know what has to happen: the noble Lord, Lord Empey, set it out. Can the Government not bring some hope and reassurance other than just the words that they are hopeful?

  10. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    My Lords, I seek to reassure the noble Baroness that it is not just words at issue here, it is the fact that the Secretary of State has been very closely involved in the discussions. The discussions are progressing. I note what she says about statements by political parties engaged in talks, but she will know from the history that that is nothing particularly new. We want to ensure that we adhere to the Belfast agreement, and taking direct powers over relevant issues here would be very much contrary to it. That is not what we intend to do: we are wedded to the Belfast agreement and we are seeking to ensure that it is implemented.

  11. Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Lab)

    My Lords, during my period as Chief Whip, I was well aware of how important day-by-day attention to the detail of the peace process was across government, but particularly in No. 10, and the relationship between the Northern Ireland Office and No. 10. I and many others are concerned that insufficient attention has been paid on a daily basis to the importance of securing that peace process. You do not get a peace process on one day. Once it has been signed, you have to do the work again, again and again.

    I am concerned about the partisanship of the Government and the Secretary of State. In the last week before the general election, he agreed a supply day for the DUP. He agreed to go to a fundraiser for the DUP, and had to pull out because of the outrage in the press in Northern Ireland. Now we have the relationship with the DUP. It is important that the Government seriously address appointing an independent chair for the talks—several have already been mentioned as possibilities. I urge the Government to take this seriously, because all of us will suffer if we do not get a devolved Assembly going and the threat to the peace process continues.

  12. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    My Lords, I entirely refute the accusation of partisanship made against the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—that is unworthy of the noble Baroness. They are wedded to the peace process and working hard to achieve it. She referred in particular to the agreement with the DUP, which of course is not contrary to the Belfast agreement. The billion pounds of spending, at least, was welcomed by Gerry Adams, who said, “Well done, Arlene”, so I am not sure that I could agree with her on that point. Where I agree with the noble Baroness is that it is important that we pursue the peace process and uphold the Belfast agreement in, as the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, said, a bipartisan way. That is exactly what we are doing.

  13. Lord Browne of Belmont (DUP)

    My Lords, I very much regret that to date no agreement has been reached between the parties in Northern Ireland to return much-needed devolved government. However, I understand that substantial progress has been made on many issues and, like the Secretary of State, I believe that a deal remains achievable. I therefore welcome the additional time that has been granted.

    Of course, some important issues still need to be resolved. One of these is the matter of legacy. Will the Government undertake to publish the proposals on this, so that a wider consultation can take place, which would help to facilitate the parties in reaching a consensus on this issue?

  14. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his more optimistic take on what is happening and the progress that is indeed being made. The legacy arrangements to which he refers were, of course, the subject of the Stormont House agreement: to be fair, balanced and proportionate. It will be on the agenda of an incoming power-sharing Executive to look at that, and we will need to consult the bodies concerned. That is what we will do when we reach that happy goal.

  15. Lord Tebbit (Con)

    My Lords, I remind people that when we are discussing matters of the support given by the DUP to the present Administration, this is not a new event. It is only as recently as Mr Heath’s Administration that an Ulster Unionist, Robin Chichester-Clark, sat in the Government as Minister of State for Employment. We have had these things happen before, so what is the great excitement about it?

  16. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I do not recall first-hand the matter to which he refers, but it was indeed the case that the Ulster Unionists were much more closely involved with the Conservative Party in the 1970s. Since then, of course, we have the Belfast agreement, which we are steadfastly adhering to and seeking to uphold across parties. That, I believe, is the way forward.

  17. Lord Rogan (UUP)

    My Lords, I too welcome the Minister to his position, and ask two simple questions. It is now believed in Northern Ireland that no agreement will even be attempted before October at the earliest. This House and the other place rise at the end of July. How do the Government plan to address the situation, and in which way and by whom will Northern Ireland be governed during August and September? I ask again the question posed by my noble friend Lord Kilclooney: is direct rule an option?

  18. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    My Lords, as I said, the progress being made is considerable, and we hope that an agreement will be reached before the timescale the noble Lord talks about—it would indeed be extremely difficult if we had not got a power-sharing Executive in place by October. Ultimately, everybody knows that power-sharing may give way to direct rule. That is not what anybody wants but, ultimately, I suppose that it is a possibility. I must say that it is not in the Government’s thinking in any shape or form, any more than it is in that of opposition parties. At the moment, it is no more than a theoretical possibility. As I said, we are working hard to seek a power-sharing Executive. We are making some progress, and that is the position on which the Statement was presented in the Commons and repeated in the Lords.

  19. Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton (Lab)

    My Lords, having been on our Front Bench during the development of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I endorse my noble friend’s comments about the need for the direct involvement of the Prime Minister. That is important.

    Can the Minister give me an assurance that the Government will produce a clear, unambiguous statement about proposals in their agreement for funding to Northern Ireland, in the interests of having a united front across the United Kingdom? I accept totally the needs of Northern Ireland—and it is extremely important that other parts of the UK accept, recognise and appreciate those needs—but only if there is equity in the allocation of funds for Wales, Scotland and the English regions, in the interests of transparency, to which the Minister referred. We need a national consensus. Can the Minister assure me that he will have regard in the discussions to our support for the convention of the Council of Europe on minority languages? I seek an agreement from the Minister that he will write to me answering my question on financial arrangements with Northern Ireland: given the needs of other parts and regions, why now?

  20. Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

    My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her contribution. I restate that the Prime Minister is closely involved and engaged in the discussions. She referred to the financial position, and I shall write to her and copy to other Members what precisely has been happening with regard to budgetary arrangements. They are, in essence, to ensure that essential public services continue in Northern Ireland. She will be aware of the more recent agreement between the Conservative Party and the DUP, which can be the subject of discussion on another day.

    I recall a point which I omitted to respond to from the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, about the donations Bill and the thresholds. I shall write to him, and to everybody who has contributed to this Statement, setting out exactly what is happening. It is obviously a fairly detailed matter.