Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill
27 March 2007
In a debate on the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill in the House of Lords on 27 March 2007 Lord Trimble said,
'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 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.
However, that reflects the reality of society in Northern Ireland, which has two blocks of opinion within it. In the past, there has been insufficient confidence for political institutions to be stable and to work well. I hope that they will be stable and work well in the future. There will be difficulties running it, but we need not be too concerned about the internal problems that there may be in an Executive and between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I rather suspect that, after the initial shock, people will find that they can work together, and indeed will probably do so better than they currently expect. The real problems will be not so much yesterday’s issues, but issues of a different nature. During the Assembly election campaign, it was interesting how much time was taken up talking about those issues that must be dealt with in the future.
Northern Ireland did not have Thatcherism; Thatcherism never really reached Northern Ireland at all. New Labour has not reached Northern Ireland. The attempts made under Thatcherism and new Labour to modernise public services were not made in Northern Ireland. Our public sector is in considerable difficulties. I am thinking not only of the problems of underinvestment in infrastructure, although they are significant. We still have a public system that operates from a 1970s outlook and on a 1970s model. Those of us who served in the Executive in Northern Ireland from 1999 to 2002 had the opportunity only to start to get some idea of the extent of the problem. I suggest to the DUP that it must ensure that officials dig up for it the needs and effectiveness evaluations that we put in place for certain departments. Those exercises were not completed; they were only just started. They are only just starting to scratch the surface, and they will be a good starting point for moving further.
I discovered when speaking to a direct rule Minister a couple of years after the reintroduction of direct rule in 2002 that the officials had told him that the needs and effectiveness evaluations had been completed. I am sure that the official system was quite happy to bury those exercises, but it is necessary to go back to them. The challenge is to try to modernise public services. The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, is quite right, and I am sure that other Members will make it again.
People may well want the Government to give the new Executive a good financial start, but the fact is that public expenditure in Northern Ireland is massively greater than in any other part of the UK. Yes, there are problems, but we are no longer at the bottom of the league tables for employment and GDP. We have improved. Other parts of the UK are not as well off as Northern Ireland, and there is a limit to the extent to which the begging bowl can be used. Yes, there may be an opportunity to deal with those problems now, but the real challenge of dealing with them will come in the next few years. The new Administration will have to grapple with the problems of modernising public services as this Government and previous Governments have had to grapple with them.
I hope that that will help to reconnect politics in Northern Ireland with national politics. The disconnect that has taken place over the years between the political processes there and in the rest of the United Kingdom has not served us well. I speak here as an Ulster Unionist. It is desirable for us to reconnect with national politics, because, at the end of the day, as was said, there are reserved matters that just happen to touch on the most important aspects of public services; namely, taxation and decisions on taxation and on public expenditure generally. The local Administration will be able to operate only within the context of the decisions that are taken here on taxation in public expenditure.
I am sorry that I spent a little more time on that aspect of the future, but that is the aspect of the future that society in Northern Ireland is increasingly focusing on and which Northern Ireland’s politicians will have to focus on. Some sections of the community and some politicians may still be thinking more about yesterday’s issues, but they are yesterday’s issues. It is necessary to move on. Yesterday, I saw people’s willingness to move into a different dispensation. It will not be easy. There will be problems and hang-ups, but there are those who are moving in that direction, and the further and the faster they move, the more they will be supported by society and the easier they will find it to be.'
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