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In our view, the best, and possibly last, hope in the foreseeable future to bring about a deal came after the talks at St Andrews last October. The St Andrews agreement, with its twin pillars of support for policing and the commitment to share power, provided the basis for a lasting settlement. Last November, we made it clear during the passage of St Andrews legislation that if a power-sharing Executive did not result, it would be a considerable time—we said from both Dispatch Boxes that it would be about three years—before an opportunity like it might come round again, quite simply because we thought that the parties themselves would never agree a way forward on their own.

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The Government have been delighted to have to revise that view in the light of the extraordinary events over the past few days. The House will recall that the legislation set in statute the date for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland; it was 26 March, that is, yesterday. The legislation was explicit: if an Executive was not formed on that date, the Assembly would dissolve. Everyone knew the position when the election was held on 7 March.

This is a very tiny Bill that does a very simple thing: in effect, it turns the clock back. On Sunday, the Secretary of State signed an instrument that, in effect, brought in devolution yesterday. We have had devolution in Northern Ireland yesterday and today, but no Ministers—no direct rule Ministers and no local Ministers. The Bill turns the clock back by restoring direct rule and recreating the Transitional Assembly, which will last until 8 May. At a time before 8 May, the Secretary of State will sign another instrument bringing in devolved government. That is the situation we have been in in the past couple of days. It is not generally accepted, appreciated or reported by the press because it is quite technical and relates to the way that the legislation was drafted.

When the election was held on 7 March, everybody knew what the situation was. If we had not had that confidence, there would have been dissolution. We made that absolutely clear, so we, and everybody else, are delighted that agreement has been reached by the parties, which is much better than if it was imposed by the Government, Parliament or anybody else. It is a freely entered-into agreement. For the first time ever, a consensus has formed around an agreed way forward. That has to be the best possible approach.

There were those who said we were bluffing, that deadlines come and go and if we got close enough to a deal, extra time would be claimed, but it is not quite like that. The legal situation was set in motion. In fact, if we do not get Royal Assent on the Bill before midnight tonight, the whole thing is scuppered anyway, simply because of the legislation in November. So the situation was quite serious.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made it clear that there would be no extension to the deadline in the absence of an agreed way forward brought to us by the parties. They were faced with a hard choice, whatever anybody likes to say. That was the choice. It is incredible and very good that they have agreed to make that choice together. We were twice asked by the DUP to extend the deadline, but it was told no because we could not credibly come back without an agreement. The situation would have been fatuous. It had happened before. We were not prepared to come back to Parliament and ask for more time unless the DUP could persuade the other parties that there was a credible reason for doing so. That is the position that we have now reached. We believe that we saw an historic agreement yesterday, the significance of which cannot be overestimated. For that reason the Bill, which moves the date of restoration of devolution to 8 May, is before the House today. Both the Democratic Unionist Party

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and Sinn Fein have agreed on that date. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has agreed to their request and, indeed, I ask for the support of the House.

We have reached a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland. There are many here and in the other place, from both sides of the House, who have played a part over the years. I could not possibly read out the whole list. But, given his presence here, we must pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who is in the Chamber tonight and who will make a contribution. Of course I include those on the Benches opposite and former Secretaries of State who are present who have gone through this process with our support. We have reached the point where we can all share in the success. It is not locked down; it will be locked down on 8 May. But when parties come to the negotiating table and leave it, each of them taking something away that it wanted, that is success. The language of victory and defeat disappears. They each have a share of the success. That is the way forward and how we can now proceed to a genuine solution. That is where we are today, which is a tribute to all those who have been concerned with the process.

As people have said in the other place—most of which debate I have actually listened to—there is a lot of hard pounding to do in the future. It will not be easy, grappling with the Northern Ireland budget and the complexities of the other arrangements. Clearly, delegations will visit the Treasury, and they will find out about working with it as some of us have to do anyway—there is nothing for free. Nevertheless, locally accountable politicians will be doing it and not direct-rule Ministers. That must be the best way forward.

We pay tribute to the political parties. The fact that this week’s agreement was brokered by the parties rather than enforced by the Governments ourselves and the Irish Government is testament to their commitment. They now have the opportunity to discharge their responsibilities to their voters, and, above all, to do it in their own way. That is as it should be. To hasten that day, I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Rooker.)

7.22 pm

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, my party’s views in the debate will be expressed shortly by my noble friend Lord Glentoran, who has spent so much time on the Front Bench on our behalf in recent years and on these matters.

My remarks will be brief and personal, and will dwell on the occasion and the fact of the Bill rather than its content and detail. But a decade and three-quarters of my life, or just under a quarter of my whole life, have been devoted to the issues of which this Bill is, at least at the moment, the culmination. I have done so either directly as Secretary of State, at an oblique distance as chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, at a further distance still as a

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Back-Bench member of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body or as an occasional attendee at the British Irish Association, most recently last year—quite apart from attendance in your Lordships’ House. Yesterday is too remarkable a development for a bystander to let it pass by on the other side.

I feel that the more vividly since of the 15 Secretaries of States over the past 35 years, I believe I am the only one to have had a significant admixture of Ulster blood, in the proper provincial use of that geographical adjective. Like the Brookes of Fermanagh, my branch of the family also came from Cheshire and settled in Cavan, which was not a county in the Jamesian settlement, at about the same time as the Brookes of Fermanagh moved. The first MP out of six from my family to sit in this Parliament in the past 175 years was elected MP for Armagh at the election which immediately followed the Great Reform Bill.

As I said once at a great Ulster Defence Regiment dinner, if my paternal great grandfather—one of three great grandparents to have been born in the Province—had not left his rope business in Belfast in the 19th century to help his sick business partner in Birkenhead, I might well have spent the early years of the Troubles serving in the UDR. But I suppose this historic infusion of blood did at least immunise me from the Whitehall charge of going native.

Yesterday was a remarkable day. The same could not necessarily be said of all the stages over the past 17 or 20 years that led up to it, and things happened in that period which of course one would rather had not happened, but this is not the time certainly for a bystander to air recriminations. Those will be matters for historians to dissect. The purpose was to reach a democratic decision. In more ways than one, that has been achieved. The people have spoken and the politicians have listened.

As the first Viscount Slim—and it is a pleasure to see the second Viscount, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, in the Chamber tonight—says again and again in his remarkable book Defeat into Victory, no news is ever as good or as bad as it first appears. In the past 20 or, indeed, 30 years, his words have been a comfort in bad times, but they are just as true in good ones, and we have to seize the day, again in more ways than one.

It is a matter of encouragement, at least to me, that in the days of the earlier Executive, at the departmental level—in other words, below the level of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who will speak shortly, and to whom we continue to owe so much—the political commentators in the Province spoke most warmly of the discharge of departmental responsibilities by the honourable Members for Belfast East and Mid Ulster, with Mr Empey, as he then was, not far behind. We wish them well on behalf of all of us, and especially on behalf of the Province.

I have never met Mr Adams. I hope that I shall not embarrass either the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley, or, indeed, the Member for North Antrim if I say I have always had affection for him and confidence that in any ultimate test he would do the right thing for the Province. Of course reserved responsibilities remain

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with Her Majesty’s Government and this Parliament, and we shall remain vigilant. It is, however, best that devolved powers are exercised locally, rather than from hence, especially in the present configuration of the kingdom.

It is also encouraging, in the context of the responsibilities that we exercise on behalf of the long-suffering taxpayers of Great Britain—they are sustaining a public sector in the Province which is disproportionately dominant—that those aspects of Northern Ireland affairs which relate to health in the private sector have not seen political objection in the Province since 1998 to the integration of the all-Ireland economy; indeed, particularly in tax terms, the opposite. I hope that, however great the temptation to mulct the British taxpayer, at least as much energy and imagination within the new Administration will go into expanding the private sector and towards the objective that the Province will achieve the self-respect of standing, in due course, on its own feet.

That is quite enough from me, particularly if the Bill has to be through by midnight.

7.27 pm

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, it is amazing what a good night’s sleep can do to restore equilibrium. Yesterday, I was deeply disappointed with the Government, but for a specific reason. For months now, they have been telling us that 26 March—yesterday—was absolutely the final day for the two major parties in Northern Ireland to come together and form a Government. Let me, gently, remind the Minister of what he said only last week, when we were debating the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2007—an order, incidentally, that allows direct rule from here. Despite my asking why we were debating it then and not waiting until we knew the outcome of yesterday’s meeting, we were told by the Minister:

He went on:

Then he told us that,

Today, after that good night's sleep, I have pondered on the outcome of soundings from within Northern Ireland and the general feeling is one of great relief and anticipation that in six weeks’ time a deal will be done between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. Of course there is still deep disappointment and frustration that the deadline set down in the emergency legislation that we passed back in November was not achieved yesterday. We are now faced with more emergency legislation, but the promise—the absolute cast-iron promise—from the DUP that it will go into a power-sharing arrangement in order to govern Northern Ireland with Sinn Fein in six weeks’ time on 8 May.

Are there to be any more slippages of dates? Are the Government absolutely committed to that date and will they assure the House that if a deal is not forthcoming, they will immediately revert to their earlier promise and move to direct rule from Westminster? I just want to be sure that another promise might be forthcoming.

None of us wants to return to direct rule, which is why we will support the Bill today, but there really must be an end to the posturing and obfuscation. The Government have given in on this occasion, as they have on so many others when dates have been promised and deadlines not met. Of course we recognise, as the Minister rightly outlined, how very much has been achieved in Northern Ireland, especially since November, and then in January, when Sinn Fein’s ard fheis gave its support to policing structures there. For a number of years now, I have urged Sinn Fein to take part in policing matters, to become members of the policing board and to encourage its supporters to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I am absolutely delighted that it has now agreed to do so.

There was much comment yesterday on the historic nature of the meeting between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. I hope it was what it appeared—their body language told a rather different story—but let us be hopeful on that score. It is up to them now to rise to the challenge; and it is up to others, including our sister party, the Alliance Party, to hold them to account and to provide constructive criticism where and when appropriate.

Much will need to be done in the next six weeks and discussions will have to be ongoing between the DUP and Sinn Fein and the Treasury about a financial package. Any new money must be used to maximum effect. Simply providing cash to allow new devolved Ministers to avoid taking some tough decisions or to provide them with the ability to have some early headline-grabbing successes would be a mistake. Simply applying the money to the existing patterns of service would be a waste.

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Any new money should follow the concept of “invest to save”. It must be linked to changes in the way that Northern Ireland is run. We have long advocated integrated education in Northern Ireland as a means to bringing an end to sectarianism. The £1 billion that is wasted every year on managing a divided society could be better spent providing schools where working together across all communities is a norm and a wonderfully refreshing change from what is on offer now. Quality public services need addressing too, so that the whole community can benefit from them.

Finally, we have been very supportive of the Government over the years in their dealings and successes in Northern Ireland. Although the delay is unfortunate—and it is still unclear to me why there is such a delay—we will always support devolution and we trust that this time it will truly happen. We have always wanted a genuine, stable and sustainable power-sharing Government, support and respect for the rule of law and, finally, the creation of a shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland.

7.34 pm

Lord Trimble: My Lords, it is quite understandable, after the language that was used over the past few weeks by the Government with regard to deadlines, that people want to reflect, as the noble Baroness has done, on the slippage, or apparent slippage, of those deadlines. But it is probably fairer to stand back from that and bear in mind that the Government, starting at the midpoint of last year, endeavoured to put into place a process that would compel the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein to take decisions. That is what has happened.

I was not at all surprised to see the language beginning to appear from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland over the weekend in which he said, “If the parties agree on something, that is a different situation”. Even if the Secretary of State had not used that language and had gone into yesterday firmly adhering to his deadline but then discovered that the DUP and Sinn Fein had made an agreement between them and came to the British Government saying, “We have agreed a different way of doing things”, I do not think that the Government could or should have held out against that. At the end of the day, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, it is desirable for these things to be done by local people. That was always preferred.

Throughout this process—and even before—it has been the explicit or implicit position of the British Government that if the parties in Northern Ireland come to an agreement, no Government here would stand in their way. So although it is natural to reflect on how the deadlines have worked, it is natural for the Government to say that, at the end of the day, the process that they put in place worked. That is not unfair.

What happened yesterday looks as though it will complete the transition that was started nine years ago. It looks as though it will finally implement the Belfast agreement. That is a good thing; I welcome that. It is essentially the same article that we dealt

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with nine years ago. It has been modified in some ways and I could discuss the merits of those modifications, but that is not relevant here tonight. The process will also evolve, but we now have the prospect, within a few weeks, of the institutions that were created so many years ago and have gone through such vicissitudes settling down and bedding in. That is a good thing and those who have done it to serve to be congratulated on having done so. I do that and I look forward to that.

When we started nine years ago, we had a very different political situation. We had one significant bloc of opinion representing nearly half, as of then, of unionist opinion that was firmly opposed to the agreement. We had a very significant bloc of nationalist opinion that acquiesced to the agreement. It must never be forgotten that on 10 April 1998, Sinn Fein did not support the agreement. It acquiesced to it. It is difficult to identify the precise point at which it firmly endorsed it. Its position was ambiguous. Over the years in between, both those parties have discovered that they have nowhere else to go and that no other option is available to them. With greater or lesser degrees of reluctance or enthusiasm, they are now embracing the path forward. That transition, that development within those parties and for different people within them, has been at a different rate.

I listened to some of the debate in the other place today and it is clear to me that some Members representing the DUP are still in the process of evolving. I trust that they will move in such a way that by 8 May things will run smoothly. There have been problems: I see that there has been a resignation from the ranks of the DUP during the day. Although I disagree with Mr Allister and what he has done, at least he had the integrity to resign. I wish that I had had to deal with more people with similar integrity, but I shall not go into that.

The next question is: will this work? So far as 8 May is concerned, the answer is very probably yes. Although there was still some conditionality in the language used in the other place earlier today, the resolutions that were passed and the statements that were made yesterday had very little conditionality in them. Those who think that something will happen in the next few weeks to derail the process will be disappointed. My feeling is that the leadership of both parties will be determined to ensure that things progress smoothly in the next few weeks.

Thereafter, will it work? Will there be problems? There are people here who have plenty of experience of running single-party Governments, which they know is not easy. Running coalition Governments is a bit more complicated. Running a compulsory coalition Government is even more complicated, particularly one in which the numbers are such that, even though there are slight differences, the parties have no alternative but to agree. Sometimes securing that agreement can take a long time. Sometimes it is not easy to secure.

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