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

Published date : 22 June, 2021
Let me begin by offering my congratulations and those of my party to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his elevation to be leader of the Democratic Unionist party.

This is a very important Bill in the sense that it is required to deliver on aspects of the New Decade, New Approach commitments. There are parts of that agreement that can and, I would argue, should be delivered by the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly themselves. I am sure that other speakers will begin to go over that ground in more detail, but I do not intend to do so myself. I will seek to confine my remarks to the measures in the Bill that can only be implemented by this place.

Before I do, I would like to offer a perspective from Scotland. There has been much comment about devolution. The Chair of the Select Committee said that devolution is neither a pick and mix nor a picnic. The Prime Minister, who clearly regards himself as a success, has notoriously described devolution as a failure. I think that most people in Scotland, and indeed further afield, would feel that the Prime Minister has got these things the wrong way round altogether.

Nevertheless, as with all Governments, there have been times when devolved Administrations, including the Governments in Scotland, of whatever political stripe, have acquitted themselves well and times when they have not—times when people have been left wondering why some things were not being done or, in some cases, why they were being done at all. There have been occasions when Parliaments have failed to pass budgets or when Governments have unexpectedly found themselves in a minority on an issue, sometimes within the Parliament and sometimes outside it. Occasionally, in the early days of devolution, there were also crises on education policy, aspects of social policy and even matters of personality and who held office, which left the institution somewhat battered and exposed in the harsh glare of the media and, at times, in its public standing. While I do not pretend that there is any scale of comparability, I would hope, viewing the situation from Scotland, that we can look at the progress that is being made in Northern Ireland with some kind of insight into the politics that goes on.

Over that time, there were strong opinions, deeply felt and sometimes trenchantly expressed, within, between and beyond political parties, some of which, as I say, led people to question the value of the institutions themselves. However, across the piece, politicians did what they had to do, which was not to ignore differences or try to come together on a false consensus, but instead to talk, to listen, to understand, to take responsibility and ultimately to move forward and start finding the much-vaunted Scottish solutions to Scottish problems instead of always looking to this place to have them sorted out for us by Governments who, very often, we did not elect. It is important that politics continues, and sometimes in order for politics to continue, all that is required is to give politicians the political space they need to be able to have the discussions they need to have with colleagues, to negotiate inside and outside the parties and between the parties, and sometimes even to reflect more broadly on whether public opinion on some issues is really where it has always been assumed to be. Who takes the decisions, and where and why, is obviously hugely important, but it is still important that the decisions that need to be taken are taken.

It is telling that in the opening of the “New Decade, New Approach” document, so much space was taken up with bread-and-butter issues such as resolving the long-standing issues around the delivery of healthcare and healthcare entitlements, around reforms to the education system and around the need to press ahead with capital expenditure and infrastructure, all of which had backed up during the absence of self-government. So, while I hope I do not underestimate for a single moment the sensitivities involved in a climate of power sharing, or the importance of being in a position to match words with deeds, I believe that the Bill will enhance the transparency and accountability of the institutions and that it is significant for what it sets out to do.

Politics may abhor a vacuum, but there is no question but that trying to bring matters to a head too quickly in the face of short and sometimes artificial and meaningless deadlines can lead to problems all of their own. For that reason, I believe that allowing an extended period, as the Bill seeks to do, for the appointment of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, whether in the event of their ceasing to hold office or in the aftermath of an election, is an important step. Similarly, allowing Ministers to remain in office after an election to allow for some limited but necessary political direction to be provided over that period is an important mechanism for ensuring continued normalcy, not only to ensure the continuity of government but to assist the political process in the formation of new Governments. Similarly, while the petition of concern process has been an important consociational mechanism, the time is surely right to begin to narrow the scope of its potential usage while broadening the support required in order for it to be brought to bear. Also, I believe that an updating of the code of conduct for Ministers to enshrine the Nolan principles will be opportune.

As I have said, this is an important Bill. The people of Northern Ireland deserve stability and, with it, the ability to have decisions taken on their behalf by the Assembly that they elect and by the Executive who are there to govern on their behalf, and so long as these proposals enjoy the broad support of the people of Northern Ireland and the parties of Northern Ireland, they will have our support too.

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