Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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All I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that I was not privy to those discussions, but we are where we are. We must realise that things have clearly moved on. The operation and reform of the protocol is sitting here like an elephant in the Chamber, but it speaks to my point that the workable delivery of devolution should not be used as a plaything for other issues.

That takes me to the point that the hon. Member for North Down made about democracy. We cannot have a functioning democracy in these islands that is effectively based on the Henry Ford model of selling a car. Henry Ford used to say, “You can have any colour as long as it’s black.” We cannot say, “You can have as many elections as you like as long as I turn out as the winner. If I don’t—if the public have spoken and I haven’t been successful—I won’t accept the result. I will tear the edifice down,” in some sort of democratic political toddler’s temper tantrum. That is not how we do it. Democracy only works when all of us who win take up the weight of winning with responsibility and those who lose accept that they have lost and somebody else has won. If people do not abide by that simple equation, that is not democracy, and that should cause us all considerable concern.

My final point, echoing what the hon. Member for North Down said, is that in the system that we have for sorting these things out, the language that is used—“Unionist”, “nationalist” and “other”—may be past its sell-by date. It hard-bakes into the language and the systems a previous age. It does not reflect Northern Ireland as it is today. This is not the time for it, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that at some point in the not-too-distant future, serious, considered, sober thought needs to be given to how these issues are addressed in order to present Northern Ireland to the rest of the world, and to the rest of the United Kingdom, as it is today and not as it was 20 years ago, or 40 or 50 years ago. We need a contemporary review of that in order to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

My cri de coeur is for all parties to understand that devolution, and its delivery of public service and improvement of life for those who live in Northern Ireland, is not something to be taken lightly. It is not a plaything to be kicked around for cheap party political points.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is always a pleasure to speak on any issue in this House, but particularly on issues to do with Northern Ireland. I welcome the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), to his new role and wish him well. He rightly came to see the No. 1 constituency in Northern Ireland, Strangford, before he had seen anywhere else. We are very pleased to have had the opportunity to have him there, and we wish him well in his role.

As always, the debate has been clear, and my party’s reasoning has been clearer. I am not enamoured with the form of government in Northern Ireland, and I do not believe that it can or does work, as has been demonstrated very clearly over the last couple of years. I absolutely believe in the right of this place to govern and legislate. However, as my colleagues have said, this is a matter that should be debated in the appropriate forum and not tagged on to this Bill. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee at Stormont is the mechanism to do that.

It grieves me that decisions were made in this place when they should have been made through the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I want to put that on the record. That leads me to an issue that I feel must be highlighted again: this Bill aims to secure a working Assembly with the best mechanism possible, yet it seems that this House interferes at will when public opinion calls for it. That must come to an end. It is time that this place gave the Northern Ireland Assembly the authority to make decisions.

During covid, despite discussion of an abortion Bill, this Government determined that they would bring in abortion in Northern Ireland in the most open way not just in the UK but in all of Europe. Along with colleagues, I strongly resented that, and I still resent it. We now face this Government acting on the NDNA deal, but only when it comes to the Irish language. With great respect to the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), for me this issue is as clear as a bell. The rest of the important provisions, such as health and education, on which there were goals and aims, have been left to trickle through, yet the Irish language is to be given priority by this place.

As my party’s health spokesperson, it concerns me greatly that across Northern Ireland, in a post-covid world, the waiting time for an urgent hip replacement is upwards of five years, for cataract surgery it is upwards of four years, and breast reconstruction for breast cancer survivors is years down the line, with no date whatsoever. I have talked to some of my constituents back home who are fluent and interested Irish language speakers, and they tell me that they want to see priority given to issues such as health and education, to ensure that they are addressed first. I am not sure that the people of the Province believe that the Government should step in and fund these measures.

There are children out of education. There are many schools in my area that are awaiting refurbishment or rebuilding, and that cannot get the support they need in the form of classroom assistants. There is a big issue, too, with assessment for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. We get referrals every day of the week for those things. There is a generation of children who have had the option to learn music stripped from them, as budget slashing has meant a choice between culture or a teacher.

Those are real issues that impact every one of my constituents, whether they are Unionist or nationalist, whether they are in favour of the Irish language or against it. Those are the issues that people tell me clearly that they want to see addressed. I resent that priority has been given to one aspect of the NDNA over the life-changing aspects, and I urge the Minister to allow the Assembly to carry out its duties according to priority and not political machinations.

I understand the need to support the measures before us today, but I must put on the record my concerns about the prioritisation of some of the spending that the Government have looked towards. Clearly, we should be spending more on policing, because we need more police officers on the streets across Northern Ireland. We have a dearth of them at the moment. The training college is turning out as many as it can as quickly as it can, but the places of those who retire are still not being filled. Improvements need to be made in health, education and policing, and that is where I would like to see the focus.

At the same time, I urge the Government to do the right thing and allow the Assembly to prioritise need over wish and people over politics, and to make our own determination on Northern Ireland issues. I believe in devolution; I always have. I want the devolution that we have in Northern Ireland to achieve something. History has shown that direct rule is not beneficial for the people of the Province. I will therefore support the Bill, hoping against hope that Lord Frost will achieve what he sets out to achieve and ensure that Northern Ireland stops being a third country to the UK and is accepted as an integral part of it.

The next step will be asking the Government not to treat the Assembly as a local council with minor responsibilities, but to allow it to take tough decisions in a democratic manner. I believe that is the foundation of the Bill, and that is why I will support it, but I say to the Minister—I hope that he will respond—that there are priorities that need to be addressed first. I think we all realise that, and my constituents tell me that. Health, education, the economy and policing are where spending should be prioritised—not the Irish language.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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May I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), to his place? I thank his predecessor, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). He and I enjoyed a very cordial relationship, and I hope that the right hon. Member and I can continue in that fashion for the people of Northern Ireland.

I rise to speak to amendments 6 and 7 in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). The instability in recent months has been unsettling for all of us who cherish the Good Friday agreement and believe that its institutions and the principles that underpin it represent the best way forward for Northern Ireland.

As ever, however, that instability has been felt most keenly by the people of Northern Ireland. It is clear that they need a stable, functioning Executive to meet the enormous health and economic challenges facing Northern Ireland. Indeed, as we have heard, a third of the entire population are languishing on health waiting lists, nearly 300 children are without a post-primary place for next year, and of course recovery from covid remains ongoing.

For all political leaders in Northern Ireland, a stable, functioning Executive must be the priority in the coming days and weeks. We welcome attempts to safeguard power sharing and improve the sustainability of the Executive and the Assembly. The lessons of the past should offer a clear warning to all of us. Institutions are much easier to collapse than they are to get back up and running. Recent events could scarcely have provided a clearer example of why the provisions contained in the Bill are necessary. It is partly for that reason that the Labour party supports the measures contained in the Bill, although we are deeply concerned that the Secretary of State has stalled on the legislation for so long that it will not now be in a position to be a useful tool in the difficult weeks and months ahead.