There have been 12 exchanges between James Brokenshire and Northern Ireland Office
|Thu 16th January 2020||Northern Ireland Executive Formation||3 interactions (139 words)|
|Wed 30th October 2019||Northern Ireland Budget Bill||3 interactions (100 words)|
|Thu 5th September 2019||Northern Ireland||3 interactions (66 words)|
|Tue 20th March 2018||Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill||5 interactions (92 words)|
|Tue 20th February 2018||Northern Ireland||3 interactions (208 words)|
|Tue 12th December 2017||Northern Ireland (Ministerial Corrections)||3 interactions (181 words)|
|Wed 15th November 2017||Oral Answers to Questions||37 interactions (1,068 words)|
|Mon 13th November 2017||Northern Ireland Budget Bill||58 interactions (6,027 words)|
|Thu 2nd November 2017||Northern Ireland Update||35 interactions (4,298 words)|
|Wed 13th September 2017||Oral Answers to Questions||52 interactions (1,479 words)|
|Mon 3rd July 2017||Northern Ireland: Political Situation||46 interactions (3,673 words)|
|Wed 28th June 2017||Oral Answers to Questions||55 interactions (1,645 words)|
First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the same-sex marriage regulations that came into force on 13 January, giving same-sex women and men in Northern Ireland the opportunity to marry by Valentine’s day this year.
On the concern about the level of finances, we all represent our own constituencies, and Northern Ireland has around 20% more funding than any other part of the UK. I have outlined the package and confirmed that there will be a UK Budget by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I look forward to working with the Finance Minister, as does the Treasury, as he develops well-costed plans based on good value for money for UK taxpayers.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work that he personally did on the talks process before he had a spell of very bad illness, for his continued commitment to Northern Ireland and for his assistance, advice and counsel to me since I took on this job.
On sustainability, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the chapter on sustainability that was developed, as were all parts of the party-led agreement, by working groups earlier last year, there are many initiatives on supporting and funding Opposition parties and on looking at how things would work should the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister resign.
It is indeed. There is so much more that they could do if they were in the Assembly, and we need to hang on to that over the coming weeks.
If Royal Assent is not granted by the end of October or as soon as possible thereafter, there is a risk that the Northern Ireland civil service will assess that the only way to continue to deliver public services in Northern Ireland is by exercising emergency powers under section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Using those emergency powers would constrain the Northern Ireland civil service to spending 95% of the previous year’s budget, effectively delivering a significant real-terms cut to the funding of public services. Northern Ireland Departments would have to consider their current budget allocation against their identified priorities and their available cash, which could put at risk essential services such as those within the health service.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He has worked hard to promote the merits of the Magee campus, as have others. I visited it only two weeks ago. I am extremely committed to making that work, as I know he is. I think that we are close to a position where we can move that forward. It is a devolved matter, but there are things we can do, and we will continue to do them.
The Bill upholds our commitment to good governance in Northern Ireland by preventing the Northern Ireland civil service from having to rely on emergency section 59 powers. It is a budget set by the UK Government, but one that the Northern Ireland civil service must plan and implement. If Stormont gets back up and running within the financial year, the new Executive will be able to adjust the budget as they see fit and amend the legislation at the end of the financial year. The Bill does not authorise any new money. In the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly, it simply authorises spending money that has already been allocated by this Parliament in the UK estimates process, together with locally generated revenue.
My apologies to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). If I had seen him earlier, I would have called him earlier, but it is a pleasure to call him now.
As I mentioned earlier, we have been having good discussions over the summer. I met the Irish Foreign Minister last Friday and we will be meeting again this Friday. I hope to push forward, with him, on working with the parties to get into a position where we have the best possible opportunity to get Stormont up and running.
The right hon. Gentleman is, as ever, absolutely correct.
I will finish my remarks on the Hart inquiry, which Members are right to mention in connection with the business before us. The programme for government offers a helpful pointer to Ministers, who may otherwise not feel on particularly safe ground in relation to making decisions. The Secretary of State and other Ministers have said that it provides some basis on which they can take note of the last expressed democratic view on a number of issues. However, on 12 March—at column 653, on the Hart inquiry—the Secretary of State suggested that it is not the business of UK Ministers or this place to consider recommendations of bodies set up by the Executive, let alone implement them, and she repeated those sentiments today.
It would be helpful to have a bit of clarification, because I fear that we cannot have it both ways. We either observe what democratically elected bodies determined before they crumbled, and that extends to any bodies that they may have established, or we do not. It is an important principle because it seems to me that it is legitimate to take note of decisions that have previously been made and of the clear will of those bodies, particularly if there was no great controversy about them. It would be useful if the Secretary of State clarified this point, so that we are a bit clearer about what we can rely on and, indeed, what she will rely on in making any decisions or issuing any guidance on which she may wish to reflect.
I was just about to sit down, but I will of course give way.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right but I am sure that, if he re-reads Hansard from last week, he will see that the argument extended not just to decisions made by the Executive or passed by the Assembly, but to things done by organisations set up by the Executive, which of course includes the Hart inquiry. The issue is whether we are guided by the recommendations made by those organisations or not, particularly if there appears to the Secretary of State and her Ministers to be genuine cross-party and cross-community acceptance of those recommendations and findings. To what the extent is that the best we have to work on? The question is really whether we are guided by what happened before the collapse of the Executive or not. I do not think that we can easily be selective.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and for the tone of them. It is important that we in this House show unity and a unified front when it comes to resolving these issues and re-establishing devolved government in Northern Ireland. If both sides of the House work together with that purpose in mind, we will have all the more reason to hope that that can be achieved. He asked about a number of matters, and I will try to address as many of them as I can.
On the topic of legacy, to which I made reference in my statement, we have been working with the parties and the Victims’ Commissioner on a consultation programme. As I have said, I would very much prefer to do that in the context of devolved government in Stormont, but we clearly have a responsibility to the victims of the troubles, and it is absolutely right that we should deal with that. We will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the matter of legacy is dealt with, but as I say, we would much rather that it was done in the context of having devolved government in Stormont. We are committed to the institutions as set out in the Stormont House agreement, and we will be consulting on that.
We are also committed to the Belfast agreement, as I said in my statement, and to all successor agreements. The position in the Conservative party manifesto at the last election, and the position of this Government, is that the Belfast agreement is the right approach. It has led to great success for Northern Ireland, and more success can come. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Brexit. The joint report that was signed before Christmas makes specific reference to a commitment to the Belfast agreement and to respecting the institutions in the agreement.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the talks, and about what the British Government would publish. I want to make it clear that the talks that we have facilitated—we did not impose them—have been between the parties, particularly the two main parties. Therefore, any documentation or anything that has been written down is a matter for the parties; it is not a matter for the British Government. He also asked about an election. I have a statutory duty as Secretary of State to call an election, but I want to ensure that we have exhausted every avenue and every viable option to re-establish devolved government at Stormont. That is what the Government want to see, and that is what we are working towards. We will do all we can to achieve that, and I thank him for his support in that regard.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments and questions, and for his approach. He was an outstanding Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and he is very much missed in Northern Ireland. I do not think I have been to a single event since being appointed Secretary of State where he has not been mentioned in the warmest and most generous terms. I am fully aware that his are big shoes for me to fill.
I agree with all that my right hon. Friend says about the importance of restoring devolved government for the people of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland elected the Members of the Legislative Assembly, and those MLAs need to be in Stormont. That fabulous, wonderful Parliament building is empty and bereft, and it needs to be filled with the people who were elected to fill it, taking decisions on behalf of their constituents for all the people in Northern Ireland.
Has the Northern Ireland Office produced an analysis of the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, or contributed to the rumoured “58 articles”—the sectoral analyses that we know have been produced? Will the Secretary of State commit himself to publishing all such material, as his colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union have already so nobly done?
1. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on the Northern Ireland peace process. 
Will the Government incorporate safeguards to protect the peace process and ensure compliance with the Good Friday agreement, including through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill?
To what extent does my right hon. Friend think that the European Commission has considered articles 8 and 21 of the Lisbon treaty, which require the European Union to develop a special relationship with its neighbours, and to preserve peace and prevent conflict? To what extent will that be achieved by driving a border between Northern Ireland and its biggest trading partner by far—the United Kingdom of Great Britain?
Has the Northern Ireland Office produced an analysis of the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, or contributed to the rumoured “58 articles”—the sectoral analyses that we know have been produced? Will the Secretary of State commit himself to publishing all such material, as his colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union have already so nobly done?[Official Report, 12 December 2017, Vol. 633, c. 2MC.]
Is it not the case that no one can decide what arrangements are needed on the Irish border—if, indeed, any will be needed—until such time as trade negotiations have been concluded, and is it not the case that the EU should get on with those negotiations now?
I warmly welcome what the Secretary of State has said about there being no creation of new borders between parts of the United Kingdom. As he pointed out, it would of course be economically catastrophic and politically disastrous for Northern Ireland to be separated in any way from its biggest market, and his stance on that will have our full support.
In the context of the issues of the hard border, the EU and the Brexit negotiations, the Secretary of State will know that today members of Sinn Féin—instead of coming to the House; instead of taking their place in the Assembly; instead of being in the Executive—are down in Dublin pleading with their political opponents for relevance, and asking for more Dublin influence in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. Will he take this opportunity to reiterate the clear position of the UK and Irish Governments on the Belfast agreement, namely that the strand 1 internal issues of Northern Ireland are a matter for the UK Government and this House alone?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that regardless of the border that is set up, which we hope will be invisible, the security services and police services of the north and the south must work together in the closest possible way—that is part of Brexit as well?
I welcome those words from the Secretary of State. Of course, crimes of dishonesty as well as violence marked the troubles. What provisions is the Secretary of State making to secure any possible future hard border against smuggling and organised crime, and what assessment has he made of how many more Border Force officers will be needed to secure any hard border?
The Secretary of State knows perfectly well that his Cabinet colleague the Brexit Secretary is preparing for a no-deal Brexit. If we have no deal, that will inevitably mean a hard border for Northern Ireland, which would be a catastrophe for Northern Ireland. Just for once, will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland set aside his diplomatic spiel and explain to the people of Northern Ireland how the Government will take back control of the Northern Ireland border if the UK crashes out of the EU?
2. What steps the Government are taking to attract foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland. 
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12. What plans he has to support the development of city deals in Northern Ireland. 
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to developing city deals in Northern Ireland. Can he confirm that the city deals that have been developed by this Government have been a success across Great Britain and that Northern Ireland stands to benefit immensely from their development over there?
Will my right hon. Friend assure us that, as in England, it is important that provincial towns benefit from city deals? Will he ensure that not just Belfast but the whole of Northern Ireland benefits from the growth that city deals can bring?
The Secretary of State should be encouraged that discussions continue apace at a local level in the Belfast city region, as well as with officials at a regional and national level. But with no Assembly sitting and a democratic participative deficit in this arrangement, how will he encourage the involvement of representatives of the Belfast region—and indeed of representatives in this House—so that the project comes to fruition?
6. What recent assessment he has made of the strength of the Northern Ireland economy. 
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7. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the operation of the Ireland Act 1949. 
Along with the 1949 Act, the Good Friday agreement has been a pillar of progress, and it has also meant that the political funding rules in Northern Ireland were different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom. At the weekend, an openDemocracy investigation revealed that the Constitutional Research Council, an organisation with close ties to the Scottish Conservative party, has been given a record fine after failing to disclose the origin of a £425,000 donation to the DUP. Will the Secretary of State enlighten the House as to why the Constitutional Research Council was given that fine in the first place?
My colleagues and I echo the Secretary of State’s comments about the incident that took place in Omagh yesterday. In view of what happened at Enniskillen in similar circumstances, with tragic loss of life, perhaps the most effective action that can be taken at this time is the publication by the Secretary of State of the proposals to deal with the legacy of our troubled past, which would enable the victims to have a say in the process and enable us to get on with the business of seeking to bring to justice those responsible for that atrocity. I think that that is a very powerful message that the Secretary of State could send in the wake of what happened in Omagh yesterday.
I echo the Secretary of State’s comments on the civil service and the role it plays. Will he make it clear from the Dispatch Box tonight who the head of the Northern Ireland civil service will be accountable to in political terms after this decision is taken?
The Secretary of State is well known for being generous in giving way, and I thank him. He has highlighted the central issue: on taking this decision, there will be no political accountability in Northern Ireland either to a non-functioning Executive or, importantly, to him and his ministerial team in Northern Ireland. That is not sustainable for any period of time. There must be political accountability, and he must move urgently to appoint Ministers and take political control.
Following on from the point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), I would like the Secretary of State to clarify something for me. If parliamentary questions were tabled in this House later this week about the details of this budget, if Adjournment debates on the subject were to take place later this week, or if early-day motions or other parliamentary accountability mechanisms were deployed on the subject, would he see it as his role to answer such questions? Or is there a mechanism whereby Members elected in Northern Ireland could also table and answer similar questions?
The Secretary of State has expressed some optimism and does not wish to appoint direct rule Ministers at present, because he thinks that there is some hope, but does he accept that we are debating this budget Bill today because Sinn Féin refused to introduce a budget this time last year and refused to take any hard decisions when they had ministerial positions in the Assembly? Really, they have no interest in devolution when it requires them to make tough decisions. They would rather those decisions were made here, so that they can point the finger of blame at the Secretary of State and the Government in Westminster, than do the job they were elected to do in Northern Ireland, leaving the Secretary of State no alternative but to appoint direct rule Ministers.
The Secretary of State is right to say that it is necessary to pass this Bill in order for the machinery of government to continue operating, and for that reason, the Liberal Democrats will support him this evening, but surely more has to be said about how the machinery of government operates. For example, higher education in Northern Ireland is looking at a reduction in student places in excess of 2,200 by 2018-19 on the basis of this budget. Surely that illustrates better than anything else the need for this budget to be the subject of proper political accountability.
The Secretary of State says that only 95% of the budget was allocated. My understanding is that that 5% equates to some £600 million that has been delayed in coming to Northern Ireland. Will he put it on the record today that the party to blame for that is Sinn Féin for not bringing the budget when it should have brought it?
The Secretary of State references the fact that there is no budget because there is no Executive in place. This time last year I was chairperson of the Finance Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and this time last year the Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, was due to bring forward a draft budget. He refused to do so, and he refused to come to the Committee to explain why—this was months before Sinn Féin pulled down the institutions. He did not produce the draft budget in October, November or December. We got into January, and I was writing to him week after week to ask for the budget to be brought forward. The reason why there is no budget in Northern Ireland today is that Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, the Sinn Féin Finance Minister, failed in his primary duty to bring forward that budget.
The Secretary of State speaks of frustrations. The difficulty is that this is not just a matter of budgets for Government Departments. Earlier today he met some victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland. They are waiting still for the implementation of the inquiry’s report, which makes a number of recommendations, including on the payment of compensation to support those victims. The problem is that we have no one to give political direction on the Hart report. Will he commit to intervening to deal with the issue? The victims deserve that intervention.
I echo the words of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), because my understanding is that there is cross-party agreement in Northern Ireland on this issue. I understand the Secretary of State’s reluctance to commit to legislating or to taking the competencies to deal with it, but surely he could look at making some sort of interim payment by using a specific provision in this budget. So many survivors of institutional abuse have died since the report’s recommendations were made.
I hesitate to intervene, as I am about to make a speech, but I seek further clarity on this point. We have all met the SAVIA people today. Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s support for devolution and his desire not to start direct rule, is there anything stopping him legislating, as he is going to in respect of the extra moneys provided as a result of the Democratic Unionist party deal, for an interim payment in order to heal, to some extent, the wounds suffered by people who have been subject to historical abuse?
It is clear that there is cross-party support for the Hart report recommendations—certainly for the compensation and for the notion of an interim payment. I believe all the party leaders sent a letter to that effect in the summer, and we have heard again here today support from representatives of the DUP. Only today I have seen an email from David Sterling to SAVIA saying that he wants to act quickly, so may I ask the Secretary of State to do all he can, including potentially legislating, so that he does indeed act quickly?
I just seek to understand the figures that the Secretary of State has given out, and this relates to the question raised by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). Our understanding is that we can be talking only about 95%. Does that amount to a £600 million reduction in spending ability for the Departments in Northern Ireland? Who will decide which Departments face the reductions to make that £600 million reduction?
I think there is probably only one person in the House who properly understood all of that, and I will not say who it was. I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. What the people of Northern Ireland and Members of this House want to know is, if we strip out all the technicalities the Secretary of State has outlined, what is he actually saying? Is there a cash freeze? Is there a real-terms reduction? We read in the press that health spending is to rise and education spending is flat. We heard the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) mention the £600 million figure, which has been raised on several occasions. If we strip away all the technicalities, what is the Secretary of State actually saying about the spending power for each Department up until 31 March next year?
May I take this opportunity to chide my right hon. Friend ever so gently? Had right hon. and hon. Members received a copy of the Bill in a more timely manner, they might have been able to refer to schedules 1 and 2, in which the departmental allocations are clearly laid out.
Does the Secretary of State accept that, even taking into account the information in those schedules, the answer to the question that has been asked is not available in the information that has been presented to the House today, because it gives the figure for this year but does not contain information on the figures for last year, and nor indeed is there briefing material on that? It really is impossible to compare departmental allocation with departmental allocation, or the overall allocation available to Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State and I had a discussion on this point earlier, but can he confirm that the clauses he has outlined contain nothing that would enable the accounting officers in Northern Ireland to advance the already agreed and already resourced national pay awards for our public sector workers? Earlier, he referred to the Police Service of Northern Ireland; nationally agreed pay awards, which should be under the control of accounting officers, cannot be advanced while we wait in limbo.
I accept the Secretary of State’s explanation. Of course this is not the ideal way to deal with the issue. That is not his fault, but the fault of Sinn Féin, which has blocked the proper scrutiny of the Assembly. Can he explain this: one figure that hits me when I look at these estimates is that the Executive Office, which is not functioning at the moment, has had a 32% increase in its budget? I do not know how much detail he went into with civil servants when he was looking at this, but has he had any explanation as to why a non-functioning office should have the biggest increase of all the Departments?
The Secretary of State will know that, for family reasons, we have had a very difficult weekend. I apologise most sincerely to the House for coming into the debate late; it is a tale of delayed flights and tubes.
Will the Secretary of State enlighten the House and the people of Northern Ireland as to why no reference is made to the reduction in MLAs’ salaries? That is what the people at home want to see. We have not had a functioning Assembly for almost 11 months now, but MLAs continue to take their full salary and full staffing allowance. People at home hoped that there would be a signal today in this budget Bill of a reduction in salaries. Will there be such a reduction?
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way and for announcing today the first instalment of the extra money coming to Northern Ireland as a result of the confidence and supply agreement. Some people said that it depended on the Executive, but, clearly, that was not the case. The people of Northern Ireland—Unionists and nationalists—will welcome the fact that extra money is going into the health service and into education, and indeed will eventually go into infrastructure and all the rest of it as a result of the deal that the DUP did with the Government. I warmly welcome what he has said. This is a very significant moment in the history of this Parliament and in terms of our relationship as it goes forward.
The Secretary of State has previously indicated—quite rightly—that this matter should be addressed, and we agree. But as far as we on these Benches are concerned, the matter of those who get paid and who do not come to Westminster to fulfil their obligations here also needs to be addressed. It is clear that, in announcing this look at Assembly Members, which is quite right, all hon. Members should focus on those who deliberately abstain, refuse to do their job in Parliament and get paid hundreds of thousands every year in back-up and parliamentary resources to spend on propaganda and political purposes. That, too, must be looked at and must end in tandem with what the Secretary of State is doing in relation to the Assembly.
I join the Secretary of State in condemning the actions of the people who left a viable pipe bomb in Omagh on Remembrance Sunday—on a day and in a place designed to cause maximum harm and shock. It is truly contemptible of those people. I equally condemn the actions of the men who conducted what can only be described as a knee-capping last night in Londonderry-Derry—a city where, even as we speak, there is apparently another incident involving what the police believe to be a viable pipe bomb.
All these awful events are a timely and salutary reminder of Northern Ireland’s past—a past that we all hoped that we had long since left behind, but which I fear we have not always left behind. These events are also a reminder of the propensity of violence in Northern Ireland to fill a vacuum when politics fails, and I am afraid that we are here today because politics has failed. This Bill is, unfortunately, a testament to political failure. It is a failure by the majority parties that were in government together, power sharing in Northern Ireland, and that have fallen out and been unable to come back together. I am afraid that it is also a failure of the Secretary of State’s Government to bring about the restitution of trust and the reconstitution of the Assembly and its institutions.
The Secretary of State has been at pains to say that this is not direct rule. I understand why he wants to emphasise that point—technically, of course, he is right—but that is not what nationalists in Northern Ireland will see in today’s events. That is not how they will characterise it, and that needs to be reflected as they unfortunately now lack a voice in this place for the first time in a long time. The reality is that we are living in something of a twilight zone between devolution and direct rule, with real problems for accountability and transparency, as so many Democratic Unionist party Members described earlier in the debate.
Today’s budget is only a quick fix until the end of March, so there will be a further one. It is difficult to credit the Secretary of State saying that this is the budget that the Northern Ireland Executive would have brought forward in the event of devolution and that this is effectively a continuation of the trajectory set in the budget in December last year. Twelve months have now passed, and it is quite hard to see a direct line of accountability between that indicative budget and the sums before us now.
Let me be clear that we will support the Bill tonight. We absolutely believe that the Secretary of State has no choice but to bring forward this budget, and we accept all the arguments he has made in that regard. Northern Ireland’s public services need to be supported. The roads budget is running out of the money to fill the potholes, and there are significant problems in housing, health and education, all of which need to be addressed with extra resources in Northern Ireland. However, this budget does raise questions about the transparency, accountability and sustainability of this approach. DUP colleagues who raise such questions are right to do so, and other hon. Members across the House will also raise these points.
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I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point—indeed, I mentioned the political disagreement. Equally, however, many victims on all sides of the troubles find it difficult to accept that the actions of a few people who injured themselves by their own hand should hold up the process for all victims—including the many hundreds who are innocent—and preclude them from getting the pensions that they need to support themselves, especially as they get older and more infirm. I understand his point, but a moral argument needs to be made. Perhaps it will take a period of direct rule to introduce that argument.
Thirdly, may I raise something else that I suspect will prompt some interventions: the so-called moral issues in Northern Ireland, particularly equal marriage and abortion rights? Those two areas are incredibly divisive, complex and politically parlous, but I urge the Secretary of State to think hard about them, not least in the light of the referendum that is being held in the Republic. He needs to think about how he might consult in Northern Ireland so that progress is made on those important issues.
One of the greatest tragedies of the recent period of impasse in Northern Ireland is that Northern Ireland does not have a voice on the thorny issue of Brexit and the border. Northern Ireland is likely to be strongly affected by Brexit economically, socially and politically, and perhaps even in terms of the peace process. It is tragic that Northern Ireland has remained voiceless throughout the process. I fear that the Government have engaged in reckless gunboat diplomacy on Brexit, and although the Northern Ireland Secretary voices platitudes about not wanting a hard border on the island of Ireland—we all support that view—he has unfortunately not proposed any substantive ways of preventing that from happening—[Interruption.] He says that that is nonsense. If he wants to stand up and tell us exactly how he will prevent the introduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland, I will be pleased to take that intervention, because I have heard nothing substantive from the Government.
None of those proposals has been taken remotely seriously by our interlocutors in Brussels. None of them answers the question of how we avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. None of them is currently thought to be a serious runner—[Interruption.] Well, I wait to see the Brexit negotiations reaching the conclusion that the Secretary of State is right and we do not need to consider some sort of special arrangement for Northern Ireland. At the moment, the country can see that no progress is being made on the matter, that the Government are employing gunboat diplomacy and that, unfortunately, we are not in a position to tell the people of Northern Ireland that they can remain safe and secure in the knowledge that a hard border will not replace the current porous border.
I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement and for his great efforts in keeping me briefed at all crucial points during the talks. I know he agrees that it is profoundly disappointing that 10 months after the breakdown of Stormont, and following two elections and countless and—I hate to say it—increasingly meaningless deadlines, the larger parties remain deadlocked, unable to agree with one another on the agenda for change and unwilling to show trust in one another.
I also put on the record my support for the work of the Northern Ireland civil service in keeping services going and for the work of the Irish Government, particularly Simon Coveney, the Foreign Minister, alongside the Secretary of State, in trying to bring about a resolution. We agree on all of that, but we disagree, I suspect, over what more could have been done during those 10 months—and could still be done—to bring about a resolution.
First and most importantly, we believe that the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland could get stuck into this problem and try to bring about a resolution of the impasse. It is inexcusable and completely inexplicable that she has only visited Northern Ireland once during her 15 months in office—and that for a 15-minute photo call at an agricultural show during the election campaign. She has not attended a single substantive session of the talks in Belfast or made a single substantive intervention to try to move things along. I know that things have been difficult recently, but the odd phone call to the Taoiseach is just not good enough. The days of Prime Ministers—or Presidents—flying to Northern Ireland to fix things might be past and overstated, but they could at least give it a go. Our Prime Minister, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, has not done that. The Opposition want her to make a greater effort.
Secondly, the time must have come to consider drafting in some outside help for both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. The Labour party has a proud record of bringing about progress in the Northern Ireland peace process, and independent chairs and observers have proved useful in the past. At this juncture of the impasse, will he consider doing likewise and bringing in a fresh pair of eyes?
Thirdly, will the Secretary of State tell us any more about his intentions now that this round of talks has failed? We will support him wholeheartedly, of course, in bringing forward a budget. Public services in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, need investment, not cuts. He will have to tell the House how he intends to consult with the parties on priorities and ensure that funds are spent equitably.
There are reports in the press that the Secretary of State has been discussing with the parties other ways to sustain and find a role for the Assembly, even under direct rule. Can he tell us what that might mean? Let me be clear: direct rule will be a profoundly damaging, retrograde step in the peace process. A shadow Assembly of some sort, perhaps scrutinising or even advising direct rule Ministers, would be a way to sustain vital north-south and east-west relations and institutions—things that are crucial to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That might provide some mitigation. It is certainly an idea that Labour Members will be willing to explore as a means of sustaining the talks, and perhaps as a bridge back to devolution.
Given that ultimate objective that we share, may I urge the Secretary of State to resist, given what he has said today, short-term pressure to cut MLAs’ pay? Cutting politicians’ pay is always a popular thing to argue for, but we need this generation of Northern Irish politicians to work and talk together to try to bring about power-sharing. While he is right that patience is wearing thin in Northern Ireland, he should resist steps that would undermine the ability of the parties, particularly the smaller ones, to negotiate and engage.
Finally, may I give the Secretary of State a foretaste of what life will mean for him under direct rule and ask him to agree that this morning’s report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes shameful reading for his Government, particularly in respect of Northern Ireland? It shows that more children will be driven into absolute poverty in Northern Ireland by the universal credit changes and the pernicious two-child policy than in any other nation of the UK. Will he therefore commit to using his forthcoming budget to undo that harm to the children of Northern Ireland?
With a due sense of disappointment and weariness that I know my right hon. Friend shares, I welcome today’s statement. I commend him for his patience and fortitude during this process.
Last week, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I chair, visited Newry and spoke to businessmen. Nowhere in the United Kingdom are the effects of Brexit going to be felt more acutely than in Northern Ireland, yet that region stands to suffer in the negotiations because its voice will not be heard clearly enough alongside the voices of other home nations. Given that the Executive are likely to be in abeyance for the balance—or a large part—of the negotiating period, what measures will be put in place to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard?
The people of Northern Ireland have every right to be disappointed with the politicians who should have been negotiating and achieving a return to a functioning Executive. It will now fall to this place, which lacks the detailed knowledge that Stormont politicians have, to set a budget for Northern Ireland, when it should be a matter for Stormont.
It is essential that control is passed back to Belfast as soon as is politically possible. What exactly are the insurmountable barriers that the Stormont politicians face, and how does the Secretary of State intend to break them down? Reimposing direct rule would be a foolish thing to do in any event, but, as has been referenced, Brexit and the coming border issues make it ridiculous. How, exactly, will he avoid that and ensure that Northern Ireland moves forward? Is he considering changing the legislation governing power sharing to ensure that future elections cannot result in stalemate negotiations that harm the people Stormont should be helping? What timescale will he put on getting an Executive up and running before calling new elections?
Unfortunately, I must express my disappointment at the fact that, highly unusually, I received the Secretary of State’s statement by email with only 50 seconds to spare, and the written statement six minutes after he began to speak. I would be very grateful for an understanding of how that occurred so that it does not occur in future.
My constituents in Kettering find it absolutely abhorrent that threats of prosecution should hang over armed forces veterans for events that happened 40 or 50 years ago, while known terrorists have effectively been told that they will never be prosecuted for their known crimes. If the Secretary of State is bringing legislation to the House, will he ensure that it contains clauses designed to stop this witch hunt?
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, for the advance notice of it and for the consultations that he has had with us here, and with our party, as the process has developed. The contact and interaction with him, his office and the Government more generally have been very good.
It is worth reminding the House how we have got to this point. As recently as December, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin had an agreed programme for government. None of the issues that Sinn Féin is now citing as critical preconditions were raised by the party in December. Sinn Féin pulled the Government down and walked out, and it is now setting new preconditions for the formation of a Government. The DUP, the Ulster Unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party—the other parties eligible for Government—would set the Government up tomorrow, but Sinn Féin is blocking it. The Secretary of State is perfectly right to come to the House, as we have urged him to do, and get the budget set.
We cannot allow the drift to continue. At some point in the very near future, we will need to have Ministers. If they are not Northern Ireland Executive Ministers—we and other parties want them to be, but Sinn Féin is blocking that—they will have to be Ministers from here. They will have to take decisions, because we cannot allow the economy or Northern Ireland to drift. We will work with them in this place to ensure that the good governance of Northern Ireland continues, alongside Northern Ireland politicians in a consultative role back home at Stormont.
Let us get on with the job of removing the new preconditions and demands that Sinn Féin has set out since December. Let us get on with the job of governing Northern Ireland from Stormont. If that is not possible, we must get on with the job from here, in consultation with our politicians back home.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his pragmatic, diplomatic and calm approach to the negotiations, and I commend the Prime Minister for placing trust in him and getting involved when required to assist in getting the process under way. Will he confirm that he will cease this legislation immediately the parties agree to form an Assembly and a proper devolved Government in Northern Ireland; and that while he has the powers in the legislation, he will take input from the Northern Ireland parties to ensure that spending decisions are made in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland?
As one of the last direct rule Ministers, may I tell the Secretary of State that however engaging it is for those involved, direct rule is not a good form of government? I wish him well in re-establishing the Assembly in Northern Ireland. Will he indicate how the extra money agreed between the DUP and the Government is involved, and whether it is part of the budget settlement? If I were to table parliamentary questions about the details of the budget after it has been agreed, would he answer those questions, or will he find another mechanism of accountability?
I want to place on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State and his team for coming to the House to set out the current position, and for being so helpful in his answers. For the benefit of my residents in Aldridge-Brownhills and I am sure those elsewhere, will he set out the extent to which he and his team, as well as civil servants and the Prime Minister, have undertaken work and made commitments to try to find a way through what is clearly a very difficult situation?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. We are of course disappointed that we do not have a devolved Government in Northern Ireland, because that has an impact on my constituents every day. I say to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who represents the Scottish National party, that we are quite capable of reflecting what happens in Northern Ireland. I have been a Member of Parliament for 20 years, and I think I have acquired a little knowledge of how Northern Ireland works, which I would bring to the House if we had direct rule.
May I tell the Secretary of State that the armed forces covenant is very important to us? It is part of the negotiations, and our agreement with the Government includes its full implementation in Northern Ireland. There will be no outcome that does not see the armed forces covenant provide for the servicemen and women, the veterans and families from Northern Ireland who have served this country. We look to the Government to support us in securing such an outcome.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. Notice of a full minute might have been helpful, but the 50 seconds we got was useful. I quite understand if the usual channels were slightly preoccupied with other matters within the Government this morning.
I remember the last time we had direct rule from this place, and it was a thoroughly unsatisfactory way of doing business both for the people of Northern Ireland and for the procedures of this House. The Secretary of State is right to do anything he can to avoid that. Has he considered the proposal from my noble Friend Lord Alderdice that, notwithstanding the absence of an Executive, the Assembly might be reconvened as a body to which matters could be referred and which Ministers here could consult as they go about the business of the administering they will have to do?
Does the Secretary of State understand the frustration—indeed, the cynicism—felt by people in Northern Ireland about the word “deadline”? As a result of the changing deadlines, the word really does not mean anything. Is it not time that when Governments set deadlines, they should actually mean something? We have had nine months of parties having discussions and there has been no change, so what magic wand does he think will make any difference in the next few weeks, given that one party is quite happy to go back into the Assembly right away, and another is making ridiculous demands that it was not making when the Assembly fell?