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

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Conor Burns Portrait Conor Burns
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First, may I say to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), that it is good to be opposite him in the Chamber this evening? I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions, which have, if I may gently say so, strayed slightly beyond the scope of the two amendments that we are debating.

Conor Burns Portrait Conor Burns
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I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with me.

I say to the shadow Secretary of State that the content of this legislation was set out a significant period of time ago. This has not been an emergency piece of legislation; in fact, it is very welcome that this is one of the first pieces of legislation dealing with Northern Ireland that has not been emergency legislation. The debate on the final stages of consideration of Lords amendments was timetabled for today some time ago, although I do concede that the amendments are landing in a period of political turbulence. It is worth remembering that Ministers remain in place, however, and the Assembly continues to sit and can make progress even in the context of the withdrawal of the First Minister and the consequential lack of a Deputy First Minister. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State issued a written ministerial statement on Friday calling for the DUP to reinsert the First Minister and get the Executive fully back and focusing.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) has rightly taken a huge interest in all this, not least because he was the author of New Decade, New Approach. On the question of the responsibility of ownership of the protocol and the checks, the operation of checks at the port is clearly a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. The protocol is the consequence of an internationally negotiated treaty, which is a responsibility of the United Kingdom Government as a whole. As he will understand, given the live court proceedings I am slightly constrained from saying too much more than that, but we were certainly not seeking in any way to abrogate responsibility.

I want to pick up on my right hon. Friend’s point about charities. Yesterday afternoon, I was in Belfast Cathedral, St Anne’s, as a guest of the Dean. I had gone before Christmas to join the collection of the Black Santa appeal, and I was there yesterday when those involved revealed that they had raised more than £150,000. Many of the charities who will benefit from that want the restoration of stable power sharing and a stable approach, as do the other people I met during the last few days in Northern Ireland.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Does the Minister of State accept that the people of Northern Ireland think they have been in a “call waiting” queue since 1 January 2021? They feel that their opinion has been undervalued and their voice has not been heard. Will the Minister give a commitment to ensuring that the Northern Ireland protocol is done away with, article 16 is initiated and the voice of the people of Northern Ireland is heard in this House and across the whole of Northern Ireland?

Conor Burns Portrait Conor Burns
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I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that article 16 and its triggering and doing away with the protocol are not the same thing. Triggering article 16 is a provision of the protocol; it does not remove the protocol.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) that we understand the destabilising impact of the protocol. The Government remain absolutely committed to resolving the issue of the protocol, the writing of which, by the way, recognises Northern Ireland’s integral place in the internal market of the United Kingdom. I visited a shop in Lisburn before Christmas and was told that it had had to reduce its range of shortbread, because shortbread now requires a veterinary certificate as a result of the butter content. That was clearly not what we signed up to when we agreed to the protocol.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—I will be very nice to him, because I am giving evidence to the Committee tomorrow—tempts us to legislate beyond the scope of what is in New Decade, New Approach. We have very deliberately decided to stay within the scope of what was agreed, because it was agreed by the political parties. That is certainly not to say that some of his suggestions are not without merit.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) talked about the divided nature of society in Northern Ireland. I have to say—I say it in affection—that I think it was slightly superfluous of him to reassure and remind us that he was not a Unionist. He did say that this was all about the build-up to the election, and there was a bit of electioneering in the air, but I suppose that is understandable.

In the moments left to me, let me say that I returned this morning from five nights in Northern Ireland. I bookended my trip with a visit to Clonard monastery on the Falls Road, where I listened to an engaging talk with the Northern Irish boxer Carl Frampton, and with a moving service yesterday at St Matthew’s on the Shankill Road, with a sermon from the Archbishop of Canterbury—all part of the 4 Corners festival, bringing together all that unites Belfast and, indeed, wider Northern Ireland—led by Father Martin Magill, a Catholic priest on the Falls, and the Rev. Tracey McRoberts, a Protestant clergywoman on the Shankill. I met businesspeople yesterday afternoon in Lisburn. I met a victims’ group in Fermanagh. I talked to Ards, Banbridge and Craigavon council about levelling up. I went to the Ulster museum, where I saw the silent testimony of “The Troubles and Beyond” exhibition, a powerful and stark reminder of what happens when society in Northern Ireland goes backwards. These are modest proposals that improve the governance and flexibility in Northern Ireland, and I commend these amendments—