NI Budget Bill clears final parliamentary hurdle
An emergency move to ensure funding for vital public services in Northern Ireland does not run out amid the continuing stalemate at Stormont has cleared its final parliamentary hurdle.
The Northern Ireland Budget Bill, which was rushed through Parliament in just two days, now goes forward for Royal Assent to become law after being debated in the House of Lords.
Northern Ireland minister Lord Duncan of Springbank said the Government had deferred legislation as long as possible in the hope that Northern Ireland parties could reach agreement and bring forward their own budget.
He also told peers that he believed direct rule was not the right solution for Northern Ireland and that a strong and stable devolved government remained "the prize".
Lord Duncan added that "nothing is off the table" in breaking the long-standing deadlock following the collapse of the powersharing executive at the start of the year.
The Bill had already cleared the Commons after Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire told MPs he had commissioned an independent review into whether MLAs should still be paid their full salaries while there is no assembly at Stormont.
He also confirmed that £50 million would be made available to address health and education pressures in Northern Ireland from the DUP's £1 billion confidence and supply arrangement with the Government, despite the continuing impasse.
Opening the second reading debate, Lord Duncan said the Bill was being brought before Parliament "with the utmost reluctance and only because there is no other choice available".
Without it, Northern Ireland faced the threat of money for public services running out by the end of the month, he warned.
Labour former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Murphy of Torfaen welcomed the Bill, but argued that without political progress "vacuums" could be created which were sometimes filled by "men and women of violence".
Lord Murphy also warned against "a drift towards direct rule" and an end to devolution, which would be a tragedy.
He urged the Prime Minister to get involved and try to engineer a breakthrough in the talks.
Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Suttie said, given the circumstances, the legislation was "essential".
She added: "It is deeply disappointing that we have found ourselves in this position, but we recognise our obligation to the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that public services can continue. "
Democratic Unionist Party peer Lord Browne of Belmont highlighted the frustration felt by the public in Northern Ireland at the current deadlock.
He said: "People want services to work for them in the way that is necessary. They want to see the transformation that needs to take place in key services. People want their elected representatives to deliver for them and, above all else, they want stability restored."
In the absence of a devolved executive, Lord Browne argued "a time will have to come" when direct rule would be needed.
He said: "If good government cannot be achieved at Stormont, Her Majesty's Government are required to act to provide it."
Ulster Unionist Party peer Lord Empey branded it "a very sad state of affairs" and argued the budget could have been approved while the Northern Ireland Assembly was still in place, but Sinn Fein "did not want to have to take the tough decisions".
He said: "They talk a good game about being in government but will not take difficult decisions."
But Lord Empey said while Sinn Fein was "the villain of the piece in this particular instance", he was also deeply critical of the former administration led by the DUP and Sinn Fein, which collapsed amid a row over a botched green energy scheme, branding it the worst since 1921.
On the current negotiation stumbling blocks relating primarily around language and cultural issues, including whether to implement a standalone Irish language act, Lord Empey insisted "a whole range of protections" already existed.
He also warned: "If we cannot get an agreement now, it will be very easy to bring in direct rule and good governance and so on, but I can tell this House that it will be many a day before we get Stormont going again if we let it go down the drain this time."
On the thorny issue of Brexit, Lord Empey argued that Northern Ireland's voice was not being heard in the absence of a devolved government.
He said: "We are affected more than any other part of the country and yet we are out to lunch."
Independent crossbencher Lord Eames, former Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, said the Bill was needed but did not tackle the key problems facing Northern Ireland.
He said: "May this legislation of opportunity be a spur to even greater effort to make local politicians work for all the people of Northern Ireland, for those people deserve no less and no more."
Lord Trimble, former first minister of Northern Ireland and ex-leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, acknowledged that direct rule was "never a healthy state of affairs".
But he added: "When I look at the present situation, I must say that I am coming more to the view that it would be better to go for direct rule if the matter cannot be resolved."
However, he suggested an alternative where the Assembly is recalled and allowed to operate without an executive, putting the onus back on Sinn Fein.
Lord Trimble said: "We have to remember that Sinn Fein will oppose anything that is not in its interest. Our experience was that it never took decisions that were difficult for itself unless it was under pressure. You will not get it there by the quality of your argument but only by adding to it some degree of pressure."
DUP peer Lord Hay of Ballyore said: "We still want devolution to work in Northern Ireland, but it takes all the parties committed to Northern Ireland to make that work.
"As a party, we have made it clear over and again that we are willing to break the current impasse."
He said the DUP stood ready to from an executive and continue negotiations in parallel.
"For many people in Northern Ireland, health, education and the economy are far more important than what Sinn Fein is arguing for when it comes to the Irish language," he added.
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Alderdice, a former leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, argued for fresh elections to be called.
He said: "It is sometimes asked what difference an election would make. I might have subscribed to that view until a couple of years ago, but elections are now a much less predictable business all over the world than they have been in the past.
"It is important, given what has happened, including the failure to reach agreement, that the people of Northern Ireland should be given an opportunity to say what they think about all this."
Independent crossbencher Baroness O'Loan said the Bill represented only "a holding operation".
She said: "Northern Ireland has no proper government, no proper leadership and no strategic direction, and has had those for nearly a year now. There is no accountability for the exercise of power at governmental level."
Lady O'Loan added: "We have to get our two parties into government again; we have to make Northern Ireland work for all the people."
DUP peer Lord Morrow argued the Irish language had been "weaponised" in Northern Ireland.
Opposition spokesman Lord McAvoy said: "Although we accept that the Bill is necessary...the Government must acknowledge there is a democratic deficit here. In financial terms this Budget is only a quick fix until the end of March."
He agreed that direct rule would be "a huge backwards step" for Northern Ireland and urged the Government to consider a range of options to end deadlock, including appointing an independent chair for the talks and greater involvement by the Prime Minister.
Lord Duncan argued that stable government in Northern Ireland was the "ultimate prize".
He said: "We need these decisions to be taken by people in Northern Ireland. That is critical and absolutely essential."
He added: "If we do indeed stumble down those steps from Stormont, it could well be a generation before we are able to climb our way back up to where we need to be, which is in peace and certainty delivered by the Government of Northern Ireland for the people of Northern Ireland."
Lord Duncan also insisted that "nothing is off the table" to break the impasse and prevent Northern Ireland entering a "period of darkness".