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Against the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

(Niall Carson/PA)

This speech was originally made by the author in the House of Lords on 10 July 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has reminded us of his own deep commitment to devolution, and it is one that I share. In his remarks responding to the Minister earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talked about the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. I do not think it is either supportive of devolution or a way to fill that deficit to introduce measures that trample on those deeply held sensitivities that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, just described. In fact, it will have the opposite result.

If we are being sensitive, one might at least ask why amendments were tabled in another place yesterday that do not even do the job they set out to do. The Minister told us at the outset that they will now have to be recast to be incorporated in a way that would be competent to do the things that the movers of those amendments sought to do. For me, this points towards the stampeding through Parliament of measures that are ill thought through and have not been constructed to achieve their purpose. So we should tread cautiously and carefully on every single ground. I cannot believe that any of these things, which are outside the original scope of this Bill, should have been included.

The stated purpose of the Bill, as introduced in another place, was to put back the date by which an election must take place and to require the Secretary of State to report on progress made in establishing a Northern Ireland Executive. With this in mind, and having visited Stormont, I will begin by saying that I believe the Northern Ireland Assembly, when it was functioning, really enriched our politics. Indeed, I do not believe the functioning Assembly was always given the credit it was due. In this respect, I strongly support what my noble friend Lord Bew said earlier.

Consider, for example, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. That piece of legislation was Northern Ireland’s equivalent to England and Wales’s Modern Slavery Act, but it gained Royal Assent before the Modern Slavery Bill completed its passage through Parliament. Indeed, some of the precedents it set informed our own debate on the Modern Slavery Bill. I also observe that some academic studies that have compared and contrasted the two pieces of legislation have concluded that the Northern Ireland legislation is, in some respects, rather better.

In saying all this, I am of course aware that the person who introduced this Bill and steered it all the way through the Assembly, as a private Member, is a Member of your Lordships’ House: the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, from whom we heard earlier. That was no mean feat. Of course, it did not become law just because of DUP votes; he worked with parties across the Assembly and gained support for the Bill. I think I am right in saying that Sinn Féin supported it, too. I hope that the Minister recognises that important accomplishments have been made by the Assembly—the fruit of something that enjoyed cross-party, cross-community support. We want more of that, and we can do that only by treading with great care.

I mention this to underline what a huge tragedy it is that the Assembly is suspended. As someone who does not live in Northern Ireland, I wonder whether things might be in a better place today if we had spent more time affirming the Assembly’s considerable accomplishments and less time criticising its politicians. Let me add, I cannot understand why a mediator with stature—perhaps someone of the stature of Senator George Mitchell—has not been asked to spend time in Northern Ireland until they are able to find what the parameters of a new agreement might be. This is not an original idea; it has been canvassed in your Lordships’ House from all parts of the Chamber on a number of occasions, and it is about time that we did it.

I, along with many others, have supported and worked for the achievements of the Assembly, and the principles of devolution, for over four decades, during which some 3,600 people died and 48,000 people were injured. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, achieved more than many of us, and the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who spoke earlier on, has been properly lauded in many places, not least as a Nobel laureate, for his work in the Northern Ireland peace process and its accomplishments. We must not risk all of those achievements, and we need to consider the ways in which those achievements have been undermined, in some ways, as a result of the way the Bill was changed during the debate in the other place yesterday.

Conversely, while there have been a huge number of challenges facing Northern Ireland, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to some of those priorities earlier on, conversely, we have a Bill onto which two controversial issues have been placed. Amendments were selected which change the law on matters that were not in the scope of the Bill. If the other place dispenses with the rule about scope, its procedures will become less rules based and more power based, and our politics will be impoverished as a result. Going forward, there seems to be no reason to bother with rules about scope, with any amendment being able to be tabled, regardless of the scope of the Bill. That impoverishes the integrity of this Bill, but it also creates a real headache for the Government in the future, as they must now be ready to contemplate out-of-scope amendments to any Bill that comes forward.

One of the amendments selected yesterday, even though it changes the law in Northern Ireland, was new Clause 10, which requires the creation of regulations to implement the recommendation of a United Nations committee which proposes the decriminalisation of abortion. Regardless of what one thinks about abortion, there is no human right to abortion. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has 30 articles, none of which suggests that there is a human right to abortion. This is a highly contested question which I will explore in a moment.

We have always treated Northern Ireland not as having to be in uniformity but as being different and having different cultural values. The law on abortion in Northern Ireland, with its distinct traditions and identity, is something about which many people in Northern Ireland hold a very different view from the views of the English metropolitan classes. This was recognised in the 1967 Act by excluding Northern Ireland from its provisions, and Westminster has not sought to legislate in this area since the formation of Northern Ireland in 1921. As recently as 2016, moreover, the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly voted not to change its abortion law in any way.

This law is as important to the people of Northern Ireland now as it has been in the past. Last year, after speaking in Belfast and Lisbon, I was privileged to meet a cross-community delegation of women from Northern Ireland, who came to Westminster with a simple message: “Don’t meddle with our law”. In making their case, they highlighted the seminal Both Lives Matter report, which found that 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today who would not have been had they embraced the 1967 Act with the rest of us—an Act which has led, incidentally, to the ending of 9 million lives in Great Britain. That is one every three minutes, 600 every working day. To describe that law as progressive, as has been done from some quarters of your Lordships’ House today, is at the very minimum a contested question. Is it progressive to take the lives of 600 unborn babies every day?

When that report was published, complaints were made about the 100,000 figure, including to the Advertising Standards Authority. To be clear: after a five-month investigation involving health economists, the ASA ruled that 100,000 was a reasonable claim. In that context, we should not wonder that people in Northern Ireland hold their law in high regard, prizing it as a progressive, life-affirming statute of which many of them are proud. Those women who came to Westminster highlighted the ComRes poll that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to earlier, which shows that 64% of people in Northern Ireland are opposed to Westminster intervening to change its law, rising to 66% of women and 72% of 18 to 32 year-olds. We should tread with care.

One might have assumed that anyone wishing to adjust the law would begin, as a matter of due process, with a public consultation with the people of Northern Ireland. No such consultation has taken place. I note in particular that there is no provision in the Bill to consult each of the individual Members of the Assembly, all duly elected, to establish whether they would be in a majority for changing the law on abortion.

Indeed, the first that anyone in Northern Ireland or anywhere else knew about new Clause 10 was last Thursday morning, when it was published on the Parliament website. Given the rules-based nature of our politics, it was expected not to be selected because it changes the law in relation to a matter that falls outside the scope of the Bill. When Members in another place sought advice from the clerks, they were told that it was out of scope. Thus, despite the knowledge that the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly voted in 2016 by a clear majority not to change its law on abortion in any way—a fact that means that of all the UK jurisdictions Northern Ireland abortion law enjoys the most recent democratic sanction within the UK—and despite the fact that there was no public consultation and no warning, yesterday the other place voted to change the law.

To make matters even worse, 100% of those voting to change its laws represented constituencies from outside Northern Ireland and 100% of Northern Ireland Members of Parliament who were present voted against it. How can the British Parliament treat part of the United Kingdom with such utter contempt?

The unseemly haste with which this is being driven through both Houses—this pell-mell rush—feels more appropriate to the sort of emergency powers legislation that blighted Northern Ireland for so long. I was simply amazed to hear it suggested in the Commons that this is being done in the name of unionism. To me, it feels more like ideology-driven colonialism of the worst kind. It is about uniformity, not unionism. I find it hard to conceive of any actions less likely to uphold the union. Since yesterday, I have been contacted by people in Northern Ireland who are resolutely appalled by the way they feel they have been treated.

Yesterday, the House of Commons abandoned something very important by deciding to proceed into this contested territory. This should be a matter for the people of Northern Ireland. It is in all our interests to see the devolved structures restored there; it is not in any of our interests to interfere in the way that we are being invited to do in this Bill as it currently stands.

 

About Lord David Alton of Liverpool

Profile photo of Lord David Alton of Liverpool
For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer. He began his career as a teacher and, in 1972, while still a student, he was elected to Liverpool City Council as Britain’s youngest City Councillor. In 1979 he became the youngest member of the House of Commons and, in 1997, and when he stood down from the Commons, he was appointed a Life Peer. His motto on his Coat of Arms is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy: Choose Life.

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