Belfast Telegraph

New government legislation on Northern Ireland 'direct rule in all but name'

Former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain has said the UK Government legislating for the region in the absence of an executive amounts to "direct rule in all but name".

The Labour peer said Theresa May's "fly in-fly out diplomacy" in Stormont's power-sharing crisis was never going to work and he did not believe her administration "gets" Northern Ireland.

Lord Hain was speaking as peers debated legislation on devolved matters in Northern Ireland, amid the continuing deadlock.

Power-sharing at Stormont collapsed more than a year ago over the controversial renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme.

One Bill relates to Northern Ireland's budget, while another sets regional rates for next year and continues a cap on RHI costs.

A third will enable the Northern Ireland Secretary to make a decision on the pay of members of the suspended assembly.

Karen Bradley has indicated she intends to slash MLA pay by 27.5% but has said the wages of their staff will not be cut.

In the face of the continuing impasse at Stormont, Lord Hain said: "I have heard nothing from the Government that they have a clue what to do.

"I do not really think this Government gets Northern Ireland.

"The Prime Minister's approach, which is a kind of fly in-fly out diplomacy, of insufficient in-depth, detailed negotiation and relationship building with all of the parties in Northern Ireland, was never going to work.

"You cannot achieve success in an impasse like we face with this kind of approach. I do urge the Government to reconsider this.

"The measures in these Bills should never have had to come to us in the first place. They represent direct rule in all but name."

Lord Hain also pressed for the Government to take action on providing pensions for victims of the Troubles, which he said would cost up to £5 million a year, reducing over time.

He said: "I appeal to the Government to provide this money now. It is a small amount to rectify a big injustice.

"If the devolved institutions are for whatever reason unable to deliver on this - and of course suspended they are unable to deliver on this ... then the Government at Westminster must surely step in now.

"Because it would be shameful if the people who have suffered so much through no fault of their own were told that nothing can be done because of political buck-passing."

Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesman Baroness Suttie said: "The fact that these Bills continue to be necessary is deeply to be regretted.

"The Bills before us are little more than sticking plaster Bills, which do little to provide clarity on the priorities for the months or years ahead."

However, she supported the legislation "as another necessary measure to ensure the continuation of budgetary certainty in Northern Ireland".

Democratic Unionist Lord Morrow said the RHI scheme was "undoubtedly a flawed project", but questioned whether it justified "pulling the whole edifice of the assembly and executive apart".

He claimed it had been used by Sinn Fein as "a device" to paralyse the executive.

Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Lord Empey urged the Government to ensure the implementation of recommendations from an inquiry into historical child abuse, including the payment of compensation to survivors.

The Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry, chaired by Sir Anthony Hart, was established by the Northern Ireland assembly before it collapsed.

Lord Empey said: "Having fought for years to get this inquiry, the victims are now being subjected to a second, if different, form of abuse.

"They have no executive in place in Belfast to ratify the inquiry report and nobody is planning to implement its findings. This is totally unacceptable."

He argued the issue should be treated as "a humanitarian measure" which had unanimous political support in Belfast.

Lord Empey also said the RHI scandal had "left a trail of destruction in its wake" and that people legitimately taking part in the botched green energy scheme had been "betrayed".

He said: "People have been badly let down and many are facing financial ruin. They have been conned."

Lord Empey called for an urgent investigation into claims that minutes of official departmental meetings at Stormont were not taken "in order to frustrate freedom of information requests".

He argued this left the former administration "teetering on the brink of illegality".

For the Opposition, former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Murphy of Torfaen backed the Bills and warned it would be "disastrous in the long term" if there was a return to direct rule.

Lord Murphy said the 20th anniversary of the Belfast agreement should act as a "spur" to the political parties to restore the assembly and the executive.

Replying to the debate, Lord Duncan said: "We are in a period of reflection. This period will be short, I hope."

He said substantial progress had been made in the talks and it was on this that the Government wanted to build and bring about an agreement.

The minister said he was not ruling out the use of an "independent referee" to reach such an agreement between Northern Ireland's parties.

All three Bills were given their second and third readings without a vote and will pass into law.

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