Unlike every other Northern Ireland Bill of recent years, the legislation before the House today isn’t being rushed through to resolve a crisis or deal with security or to revive collapsed institutions.
Today we are considering a new kind of Bill for Northern Ireland. A Bill for more normal times.
Times in which Northern Ireland’s position as part of the United Kingdom is settled on the basis of consent. Where we have stable and inclusive devolved government at Stormont and where the focus is now very much on the politics of delivery.
Many of the measures in the Bill have been prepared in the light of public consultation, followed by pre-legislative scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
I am very grateful to my Rt Hon Friend the member for Tewkesbury and his Committee for the seriousness and diligence with which they approached their task.
Several aspects of the Bill have been improved in response to their recommendations.
So the context for this Bill is much more stable than for previous NI related legislation.
Devolved Government is well established and the Northern Ireland institutions have been running continuously since 2007.
In May the First and Deputy First Minister published an ambitious programme to address sectarian divisions including dismantling all peace walls within 10 years.
Just 10 days ago, they and I, and the Prime Minister signed a substantial economic pact to help Northern Ireland compete in the global race for jobs and investment.
This agreement reflects the maturing relationship between the Government and Executive. It will see the two administrations working more closely together than ever before on crucial issues such as business access to finance improving infrastructure and supporting research and development.
It also provides new capital borrowing powers for shared future projects and confirms that the Government is on track to meet the promise to deliver £18 billion of capital funding over the period 2005 to 2017.
And of course last week Northern Ireland played host to the highly successful G8 Summit - something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
The Prime Minister’s decision bring the G8 to Country Fermanagh could not have been more fully vindicated. Lough Erne provided a spectacular backdrop for the meeting of eight of the most powerful people in the world.
The Summit was a great opportunity to showcase the best of the new Northern Ireland which is a great place to invest and a great place to visit.
A highly effective policing operation delivered the most peaceful G8 that anyone can remember.
And let me take this opportunity to thank the PSNI and their partner agencies including the An Garda Siochana for all their work in making that possible and for their continuing vigilance on combating the terrorist threat that remains so severe in Northern Ireland.
The Bill before the House today makes a number of institutional changes.
These measures do not re-open the political settlement enshrined in the Belfast Agreement or its successors. But I believe they will improve the way politics works in Northern Ireland in a number of significant ways.
For example the Bill will open the way for more transparency on political donations.
It will modernise the way elections are run.
And it will see an end to dual mandates between the Assembly and the House of Commons.
Taking the transparency points first. Northern Ireland is not currently subject to the same transparency rules as the rest of the UK.
The concern has always been that publication of donor names could deter people from making political donations because of fear of violent reprisal.
Let me be clear, the Government’s ultimate goal here is full transparency with the rules in Northern Ireland brought into line with the rest of the UK.
Having considered this matter carefully we have concluded that the security situation has not improved sufficiently to enable us to do that and that it is not yet right to start publishing donor names.
But clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill enable us to make progress towards normalisation of the rules on party funding in Northern Ireland. They will give the Government the power to use secondary legislation to increase transparency on a gradual basis,stage by stage.
As a first stage - and in response to NIAC’s recommendations - we propose to move as swiftly as possible to publication of draft secondary legislation, if the Bill passes all its parliamentary stages.
We envisage this secondary legislation covering matters such as the number and amount of donations; the type of donor (individual or business); the date of the donation and whether it came from a Irish source.
Clauses 3 to 5 would ban the holding of dual mandates between the Assembly and the House of Commons.
The committee formed prior to the 2006 St Andrews talks agreed that dual mandates should be phased out. Further concern on this was expressed during the MPs expenses crisis, including by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
In response to a recommendation put forward by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Bill also bans double-jobbing between the Assembly and the lower House of the Irish Parliament.
Clause 6 would enable the Assembly to reduce the number of MLAs, subject to consent from Westminster.
There is widespread acceptance that Northern Ireland has disproportionately high numbers of elected representatives. Scotland, with a population of just over 5 million elects 129 MSPs but Northern Ireland elects 108 MLAs to represent just 1.8 million people.
As yet there is no cross party agreement on the appropriate size of the reduction. I would urge Northern Ireland’s political leadership to reach a settled view on this as soon as possible. In the meantime, the Bill would enable such a reduction to take place without further primary legislation.
The Bill also contains a number provisions allowing us to update the rules on electoral administration on issues such as performance standards, residence requirements, the canvass form and declarations by overseas voters.
Clause 7 introduces 5 year fixed terms for the Assembly from now on, and moves the date of the next Assembly election to 2016.
When the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was debated in 2010, concern was expressed that a general election in May 2015 would overshadow the polls for the UK’s devolved assemblies scheduled on the same day and cause voter confusion. The decision was taken to extend the terms of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.
Lord Wallace indicated during the debate in the other House that the Government would consider a similar extension for the Northern Ireland Executive following the triple poll of May 2011.
The Bill brings the Northern Ireland institutions into line with the approach adopted for Scotland and Wales, avoiding a clash with 2015 general election and making future clashes much less likely.
Clauses 8 and 9 give the Northern Ireland Justice Minister the same security of tenure as other Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. This reflects the cross-party negotiations that led to agreement in the Assembly on the method for selecting a Justice Minister.
Clauses 10 to 12 would permit the devolution of certain arms length bodies without further primary legislation. These include the Human Rights Commission, the Civil Service Commissioners and the District Electoral Areas Commissioner.
Before devolution could actually take place, there would need to be a full consultation, a vote in the Assembly, and confirmation via secondary legislation approved by Parliament.
As well as consideration of these and other important measures in the Bill, I am sure our debates will give us the opportunity to reflect on what the next steps for the institutional change in Northern Ireland should be.
The Government doesn’t rule out more far reaching changes to the institutions in the future. But any future reforms would have to be consistent with the principles of power sharing and inclusivity which are at the heart of the Belfast Agreement. And they could only go ahead if they have cross party and cross communal agreement
The perennial question for all institutions of Government is how to improve delivery on key issues. A growing number of people think this could come about by facilitating the emergence of a formal opposition within the NI Assembly.
While MLAs do of course provide regular scrutiny of the Executive, the Government has been clear that it would like to see a more normal system emerge, which accommodates a government and opposition. As yet the consensus we would need to legislate has not been achieved but I believe that the consultation my predecessor ran last year on this on has pushed the debate forward.
I welcome the fact that the Assembly and Executive Review committee is now looking at steps that the Assembly might take in this field. And I would encourage the larger parties to be generous towards parties who might consider they could best serve the electorate by choosing to be in opposition, or who do not have sufficient strength in the Assembly for a seat at the Executive table.
As parliamentarians we recognise the democratic value of challenge to our views, even where that is uncomfortable. Innovation often comes from those who are prepared to take on the prevailing consensus.
In conclusion, thankfully this Bill isn’t surrounded by the drama or break-neck urgency of Northern Ireland Bills of the past, but if offers an important set of changes none the less.
In pressing ahead with targeted improvements to the way politics works, I hope this Bill will play its part in addressing the challenges faced by today’s Northern Ireland and its political leadership.
Despite some welcome signs that the economy is beginning to heal, the economic climate in Northern Ireland remains difficult. And as President Obama reminded us in his memorable address at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast last week, there are many miles to go before Northern Ireland has the shared society we all want to see.
The President was introduced by 16 year old Hannah Nelson from Methodist College in Belfast. With great composure, she told the packed hall and the global media:
“We should not let the past pull us apart and stop us from moving forward. We need to listen to each other and to compromise. Most importantly we need to clearly value each other. Peace is not easy and it takes a lot of work to make it happen.”
Hannah’s message is one that has resonated across Northern Ireland.
Sectarian division carries great risks to progress on the economy, to security, and to the general wellbeing of Northern Ireland’s people. It profoundly influences how the world sees Northern Ireland, not least when the tensions it causes on flags and parading spill out on to the streets.
This debate and this Bill provides an opportunity for all of us in this House to once again pledge our support to the people of Northern Ireland in their continuing efforts to building a prosperous and united community of which we can all be proud.
I commend it the Bill to the House.
The full text of the Bill and explanatory notes are available on the UK Parliament website