A short BBC report points to an interesting exchange today in the House of Lords where the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office and Scotland Office, Lord Dunlop, poured a bucket of cold water on the suggestion that “joint authority” could be an option if the relevant parties fail to form an Executive following the Assembly election in March.
Lord Lexden (Con): My Lords, this is a grave moment for part of our country—our precious United Kingdom, as the Prime Minister described it yesterday. The people of Northern Ireland must surely be at the forefront of our thoughts on all sides, in both Houses of Parliament, at this time. Will the Government confirm that it is within the framework of the union, and that alone, that the rebuilding of political stability in Northern Ireland will take place? Will this Conservative and Unionist Government now give a clear commitment that the Irish Republic, a close and respected neighbour, will not be given an enhanced role in Ulster’s affairs, and there will be no moves whatever towards joint authority over Northern Ireland?
Lord Dunlop (Con): My Lords, first, I take this opportunity to wish John Hume a happy 80th birthday today. As the House will know, he, along with my noble friend Lord Trimble. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the 1998 Belfast agreement. My noble friend Lord Lexden raises an important point. I can confirm that the Government remain fully committed to the Belfast agreement, including the principle of consent governing Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. It is on that basis that Northern Ireland is, and remains, a full part of the United Kingdom. Clearly, any form of joint authority would be incompatible with the consent principle. The Government’s priority remains to work intensively to ensure that, after the Assembly elections, strong and stable devolved government is re-established in Northern Ireland. [added emphasis]
Interestingly, the next person to speak in the Lords was former NI Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Lord [Peter] Hain. Here’s what he had to say
Lord Hain (Lab): Why is it that the Government give the distinct impression of being hands-off rather than hands-on during this escalating crisis? Clearly, the parties, since their relations have deteriorated so terribly, are not going to sort this out on their own, even after an election. It is vital that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister convene meetings—whether summits or other gatherings—to bring the parties together, and that they do so with the Taoiseach as well. Regardless of joint sovereignty arguments, which are irrelevant in this, the Irish Government are very influential, must be brought in, and are a partner in the Good Friday agreement. [added emphasis again]
Lord Dunlop: I do not accept the premise of the noble Lord’s question. Both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have been very actively engaged in talking to the Taoiseach and the parties in Northern Ireland. We will continue to leave no stone unturned to ensure that we are in the best possible position after the election to re-establish a fully functioning Executive.
Regardless of what you might think of Peter Hain [*ahem* – Ed], he is being consistent with his approach when the NI Assembly was previously suspended.
As I noted back in May 2006, when the then Irish Government Foreign Minister, Dermot Ahern was “talking, in effect, about joint government decision-making as a Plan B”.
In the debate in the House of Commons after the announcement of the recall of the Assembly from suspension in May 2006.
[Peter Hain, House of Commons, 18 April 2006] On the supremacy, as it were, of the United Kingdom Government in the governance of Northern Ireland, I am happy to agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. There is absolutely no question of joint authority or joint governance. There is plenty of scope, however, and the hon. Gentleman implied that he agreed with this, for practical co-operation, as provided for through the architecture of the Good Friday agreement, which was endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland, for cross-border co-operation in a number of areas—for example, on energy, the economy, child offending, and getting rid of unfair mobile phone roaming charges so that there is a single, all-Ireland rate. On those sorts of issues, and on many more, there is tremendous scope for future co-operation, much of which, indeed, is already taking place. But there is no question of joint authority. There is no question of that at all. [added emphasis throughout]
Indeed, following the proper restoration of the NI Assembly we have seen plenty of examples of practical cross-border, as well as governmental, co-operation. Not least in the recently established independent oversight of the NI Executive’s proposed Action Plan for Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime…