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Direct rule in Northern Ireland inevitable under no-deal Brexit, warns Lord Hain

Labour peer Lord Hain
Labour peer Lord Hain

By Nick Lester

A no-deal Brexit would lead to "disastrous" direct rule in Northern Ireland, a former Secretary of State for the province has warned.

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Labour peer Lord Hain said steps being taken at Westminster to make public appointments in the region in the continued absence of a Stormont executive served as "a dress rehearsal" for the UK government to take control.

His comments came as a Northern Ireland minister gave a pessimistic assessment of talks aimed at ending the long-running Stormont deadlock, likening the situation to being "trapped in a box with no light".

Speaking at Westminster, former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Hain said: "The increasing and alarming prospect is of a calamitous no-deal Brexit and that in my view will lead inevitably to direct rule.

"Not least to provide the necessary civil contingency and security powers, which the civil servants currently administering Northern Ireland simply do not possess.

"I believe direct rule would be little short of disastrous for Northern Ireland and the progress that has been made since the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

"A DUP-backed right-wing British government exercising direct rule may not take us back to the violence of the past... but it will immeasurably damage the prospects for long-term stability and reconciliation. Effectively you have got one party of all the parties in Northern Ireland... wagging the tail of the government in a direct rule context.

"This alliance suggests that one community or perhaps one part of one community again has the advantage over the other."

The UK government would not be seen as "an honest broker", he warned.

But this led to a rebuke from former DUP MP Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, who told Lord Hain that his own Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had "collaborated" with Sinn Fein-IRA during the Troubles.

Criticising the lack of progress in restoring powersharing at Stormont, former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Empey argued there had been "a lack of urgency, a lack of drive, a lack of ambition".

He said: "If we are serious about restoring devolution, it just will not be restored unless there is a proper process, which is organised and timetabled and run properly. This ad hoc stuff... won't deliver."

Responding to the debate, Northern Ireland minister Lord Duncan of Springbank acknowledged there had been no all-party talks held since the start of August.

He said: "You would think, I suppose, that if you can't restore it during this period when such vital issues are at heart... you do begin to wonder whether the parties will ever find that way through to restore an executive.

"If they are not able to restore that executive... then other means must be found."

He told peers: "We appear to be trapped in a box with no light and it's dark. That seems to be where we are right now." He added: "This cannot go on. The people of Northern Ireland are the people who are suffering here."

Lord Duncan said the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019 required Parliament to introduce laws on same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships, abortion and victims' payments.

"I recognise these are sensitive devolved issues and this government's preference is that they are taken forward by a restored executive and a functioning Assembly.

"However, this House has spoken and the duty to legislate will come into effect if the executive is not back up and running in the next six weeks."

Lord Duncan's comments came as peers debated a series of motions relating to the Act before the suspension of Parliament.

In July, the Lords backed controversial moves to introduce same-sex marriage and abortion reform in Northern Ireland after MPs added amendments to legislation going through Parliament.

Liberal Democrat Baroness Barker, backing the changes, said it was to ensure that people in Northern Ireland enjoyed the same human rights and access to services as the rest of the UK.

She said decriminalisation did not mean there would be no regulation of abortion in Northern Ireland and condemned "wildly misleading" statements.

But independent backbencher Lord Alton of Liverpool said that for many in Northern Ireland, Parliament's decision to act in this area made a mockery of democracy.

He condemned the move as "rushed" and "flawed", adding: "The only way this can be prevented is for the executive and for the Assembly to be restored."

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