Belfast Telegraph

London Notebook: Lords showing their opposition to Stormont Opposition

By Tony Grew

The courtly language used in the Lords can be deceptive. Their standing orders, dating from 1626, demand that 'all personal, sharp, or taxing speeches be forborn'.

Peers are to avoid 'all mistakes, unkindnesses, or other differences which may grow to quarrels, tending to the breach of peace'.

At times, this makes it difficult to discern what is happening. For example, the Lords debated the Northern Ireland Bill this week, specifically Lord Empey's amendment on introducing an Opposition into the Assembly.

The discussion was relaxed and academic. Empey argued that Westminster had to create a process, because even though MLAs can do it themselves, "what the Assembly gives, the Assembly can take away".

He added: "I have not yet heard anybody come out and say that they are opposed to the concept of an Opposition".

Empey proposed that the Opposition be given extra speaking rights, entitlement to supply days, and the chair and deputy chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

Lord Alderdice was enthused and said the UUP "should take it seriously in discussions with the SDLP". So was the DUP's Lord Browne: "We are prepared to facilitate any party which wishes to opt for an Opposition role within the current structures at Stormont. To date, no party has taken up this offer.

"The DUP has always been willing to support additional resources and speaking time for a genuine Opposition as a first step towards the normalisation of our democratic structures."

There aren't any SDLP, or indeed Sinn Fein, members of the House of Lords, so their voice wasn't heard.

The Labour Party weren't in favour. Lord McAvoy said: "We are very responsive to and aware of the sentiments that have been expressed, but the Assembly is on a journey.

"Unfortunately, we do not yet seem to have reached the stage where it can take the next step." In House of Lords-speak, that's an emphatic no.

Baroness Randerson responded for the government. She was even-handed. "There are attractions to being in government," the Lib Dem minister reflected.

"If you want parties to choose Opposition status, they have to have a guarantee for that to be an attractive position to seek."

She added: "The government will certainly reflect on what has been said on all sides this afternoon and, no doubt, the House will return to the issue on Report."

In Lords-speak, this can indicate a U-turn. 'Reflect' is one of those words Lords' ministers use when they really mean "change our minds".

Lord McAvoy asked for clarification. "Will the minister bear in mind the wise and experienced opinion of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that opinions that can be seen as instructions from outside are often counterproductive?" he warned.

Absolutely, Baroness Randerson replied. "The government are well-aware that there should be no direction from outside."

So, perhaps, on reflection, ministers aren't going to change their minds and insert a new clause on an Opposition into the Northern Ireland Bill.

We shall have to wait until it reaches the Report stage to find out.

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