Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Roger Gale Excerpts
Second Reading
Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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Amendments, new clauses and new schedules for Committee of the whole House may now be tabled by Members at the Opposition side of the Table of the House. I understand that the Chairman of Ways and Means has indicated that she will make her provisional selection of all those amendments tabled soon after 2 pm. If any amendments are tabled and then selected by the Chairman of Ways and Means, an amendment paper for the Committee of the Whole House will be circulated as soon as possible.

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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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I will begin, as is sadly becoming customary, by saying how much it is a matter of regret that we are back here discussing a postponement to elections. I am very firmly of the view that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally, and that for the sake of all the people of Northern Ireland we wish to see the Assembly return in early course. Having said all that, however, we see no utility in or prospect of progress being made by holding an election at this point.

There were opportunities last year to reflect on the 25 years of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I remember with great pleasure the special meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Belfast. There were meetings across Stormont itself, and also at Belfast castle, at which those charged with the care of affairs and relationships between our islands and jurisdictions had the opportunity to benefit from the breadth of experience of those who were involved in the peace process, the Good Friday agreement and establishing devolution. As a temporary custodian of that role, I certainly found it incredibly valuable to have that transfusion of knowledge and experience. It was also a tremendous opportunity to reflect on how far all parts of the UK that have experienced devolution over that quarter of a century, particularly Northern Ireland, have advanced and progressed. It also brought into sharp focus how much is missed by Stormont sitting empty at present. I very much share the sentiment of the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) when he speaks about hope being tempered by expectation.

I always very much enjoy the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland, whether in a private capacity or in my role as the SNP spokesperson and, when I can, to engage with businesses, community groups and representatives of wider civic society. I have had much cause to be grateful to elected Members across various parties in Northern Ireland for the opportunities they have given me to do that, for the doors they have opened and for the insights I have gained. What I have observed from many of those visits is the sense of frustration at how politics is presently failing in Northern Ireland. I say politics rather than politicians deliberately, because it is a failure of politics across many strands that has brought us to this point.

We saw that bubble up most obviously with the recent strikes. In the debates we had in this place on the Northern Ireland budget, I highlighted the problems caused, and the potential solutions deferred, by civil servants having to cheesepare budgets within the confines of the ghosts of ministerial decisions past. I remember from my time in local government the frustration of council officers if we were unable to provide any clear political direction about what we wanted to happen. While it was always possible under different circumstances to set balanced budgets, how much better it was to be able to set them in the context of clear political leadership on the choices we wished to make within the resources at our disposal. That is certainly a consideration, because it is impossible to set the strategic budget directions that are needed in Northern Ireland right now in the absence of a working institution at Stormont.

When it comes to public sector pay, the Secretary of State says that using part of the £3.3 billion cash allocation to settle claims ahead of Stormont being reconstituted is a political decision, and therefore not one that he is willing to make. I would just say as gently as I can that deciding not to act is taking a political decision in its own way: the decision not to act is also political. I would join the voices in previous debates—I am sure we will hear them later—urging the Secretary of State to reconsider his stance on that. Public sector workers in Northern Ireland, on whom the brunt of the pressures caused are falling, really do deserve the pay settlements that their counterparts elsewhere in these islands have been able to get.

I mention in passing that it was said that the absence of a functioning Stormont was the reason why the UK Government were unwilling to make progress on providing funding for levelling up. I had a wry chuckle about that given the UK Government’s disinclination to work with the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales. There seems to be a certain amount of cherry-picking in the excuses offered. Punishing the people of Northern Ireland to try to bring to bear some additional political leverage on politicians has not been a conspicuous success so far. Neither do I believe it is an appropriate lever to use where public sector pay is concerned.

As I say, this has been a failure of politics. The fundamental problem that has led us to where we are stems from Brexit and the manner in which successive Governments chose to take that forward—against the express wishes, lest we forget, of clear majorities both in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. Again, I allow myself a wry smile, because during debates about the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 we were told that we would apparently be creating a trade border with the rest of the UK. Yet only two years later we saw the UK Government themselves going hell for leather towards creating a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I remember very much enjoying causing consternation on the Government Benches by pointing out in a Backbench Business debate about the Northern Ireland protocol, perhaps a little indelicately, that if Scotland were once again independent and in the European Union, we would be able to enjoy free trade with Northern Ireland. Neither can currently enjoy that as part of the Union, based on the deals that have been put in place.

In closing, I am very clear what my preferences are for the constitutional future of these islands, but short of that, bringing the UK back into the single market and the customs union would make this problem go away. Accepting that that is not politically realistic, given the stance of the current Government and the aspiring Government, closer alignment, on sanitary and phytosanitary matters especially, would be of enormous benefit, not just to people in Northern Ireland but right across these islands, particularly my constituents—speaking selfishly—and for those involved in agriculture and the food trade. That closer alignment would be much better, because the closer we align, the less significant these issues become, and that would be manifestly in the interests of all of these islands, whatever constitutional future we choose in future.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

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None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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Order. Before I proceed, let me remind hon. Members that the Second Reading debate must end at 3.23 pm. I assume they will want to hear the Front Benchers wind it up. I am not going to impose a time limit; it is up to hon. Members whether they choose to hear the Front Benchers or not.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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Without encroaching on the advice that you have just given, Mr Deputy Speaker, am I right to assume that there are three Back Benchers still waiting to speak? If that is the case, I think we can pass the time well between us.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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As things stand, yes, but one hon. Member left the Chamber and came back in, and another who indicated that she wished to speak has left the Chamber but is entitled to come back in because she heard the opening speeches, as did one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues. All I am saying is that I urge brevity. I know that that is difficult, but speeches are currently running for more than 10 minutes, and that is too long.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson
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I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I certainly do not take those comments personally, because it is a trait among those of us who are of Ulster-Scots lineage that we sometimes add a few extra words or phrases.

I am proud to speak in this debate. Let me first acknowledge the constructive tone adopted by the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood). He was right to say that should we find ourselves in circumstances like this in the future, we should talk. If I were not willing to follow the constructive tone of the debate, I would gently remind him that at the time when we tried to have those conversations, some were chiding us, encouraging us to take the action that we did and mocking us for not doing so; but I will leave it there.

I am also proud to follow the remarks of my party leader and the leader of Unionism, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who very carefully, clearly and thoughtfully articulated not just where we have been or where we are today, but the aspiration that we have outlined for a number of years. We have been to the electorate, and we have highlighted the difficulties and the deficits within the arrangements foisted on us, but the challenge for us all is to recognise that the prize for restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, for reducing the constitutional harm and for removing the democratic deficit, is the ability to return to a place where Northern Ireland functions as well as it has in the past: a place where people in Northern Ireland are confident of their position within this United Kingdom irrespective of their constitutional outlook, and a place where people in Northern Ireland can recognise that it is through their elected representatives directly and locally that they can shape their own future. It does not matter what passport they hold; they live in Northern Ireland and can benefit from, and do benefit from, a relationship that has spanned centuries on these islands.

My right hon. Friend referred to custodians of the future. I remind Members that our place in politics is to protect and promote our place within this United Kingdom. That is our first and foremost principle. To those who have raised questions in the last number of days, and who will no doubt continue in the next number of days to raise questions or sow discord, let me say this: the Democratic Unionist party is united in the task that is before us.

We highlighted the pitfalls and the dangers of what was proposed to us back in 2019, at a time when others dismissed and demeaned our position. When we asked for change and indicated the consequences that the proposals could have for power-sharing arrangements in devolution, we were dismissed. We were set aside. Yet through our actions, when changes were delivered in the Windsor framework, what we had been told were mythical unicorns suddenly became something that, while being far from rigorous implementation, constituted changes that recognised the problems and brought solutions. The very same people who had ridiculed and dismissed us turned round and said, “Of course all this is sensible and pragmatic, and we should move forward.”

When faced with the choice between religious observance of that which was agreed with the European Union and the importance of devolution, sadly there are those within Northern Ireland political society who chose religious observance of the EU. They lost sight of the prize of power sharing in Northern Ireland, where communities with different aspirations could work collectively together. That is where we find ourselves.

The Secretary of State and I have engaged on this, as he has with a number of colleagues over a considerable period of time, and I commend him for a number of things, including for delivering a speech that had fewer words than are in the Bill before us today. That was a remarkable achievement. But he did not have many choices that were workable, other than to present the Bill today. Of course, he could have brought forward legislation that addressed a budget for next year. He could have brought forward legislation that assumed powers from Stormont to here in Westminster. He could have brought forward legislation that set a regional rate of around 15%. I think it is fair in the context of this debate to recognise that he still may need to bring forward such legislation. While others speculate about the intentions of this short Bill—I have my own views on it and what it should have been—I think it is a recognition that there is still work to be done and that there is a commitment to do that work.

I cannot say where this will end. I know where I think it should end. I cannot say what the ultimate outcome will be, but what I see and hear and read in the papers at home bears no resemblance to reality. My party is at one in our position. We have stood together through worse times than this. Anybody who thinks they are going to come at one member of our party over the coming days and weeks comes at us all, and they do so for their nefarious ends, not for our collective future. The choices will become stark, but let us make a choice on the basis of where we are, not where others who do not wish anything to work think it is. That is the challenge for us, for the people of Northern Ireland and for the people we represent.

In standing in the position that I do today, with nine years as an elected representative in this House and 14 years as an elected representative and as someone who has lived in Northern Ireland benefiting longer from periods of peace than seeing troubled times, I can say that nothing will shake our resolve to get this right. I say that with only this in mind: the Secretary of State has taken the choice available to him today in proceeding with this Bill, and it does not end today. It cannot end today, and our commitment for the future needs to be emboldened further still.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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I am not too sure why we have the Bill in this form today, with the suggestion that we could have further legislation on 8 February. I suppose the generous interpretation is that the Government still recognise that a lot of work needs to be done to deal with the concerns of the Unionist population. The other interpretation is that this is an attempt to put short-term pressure on my party to come to an agreement on the basis of terms that are unacceptable.

I know that the Government are intent on trying to put the failure of their negotiations with the EU behind them because they have so much internal division with their own party about how they have failed to deliver on the promises of Brexit, but cementing this agreement into the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is not good for a Government who claimed that they wanted to take back sovereignty, and it is not acceptable to Unionists in Northern Ireland who have gone through terrorist campaigns, and shown resolve in terrorist campaigns, in order to stay within the United Kingdom.

We have had all kinds of pressure put on us. We have had threats. We have even heard more of those threats today, such as, “If you don’t go down the route of getting a resolution here, we will have to re-examine the Belfast agreement. We will maybe have to take away the safeguards that were put in place.” With Unionists now not being the dominant parties in the Assembly, it is easy for those who said safeguards for minorities were important in the agreement to dismiss them now. I listened to the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), and it is little wonder that many people in North Down regard him now as a Sinn Féin cuckoo in the constituency nest, because he talks and argues so much as though he were coming from a Sinn Féin position, rather than from the position of a constituency that is predominantly Unionist.

We have had the threats, including that there might be a change in the agreement that would take away the consensus, or that we might have direct rule that involves the Irish Republic, even though there is no provision for that in the Good Friday agreement. Of course, the Secretary of State has sought to say this at times—or through surrogates. I notice that the hon. Member for North Down echoed the words of the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in threatening that there could be big change that would be detrimental to the Union if we did not come to an agreement quickly.

We have had the bribes, and of course we have also had the bullying: “If you don’t go back into the Assembly, people will not get their pay rise.” I have to say to the Secretary of State that it does not become the current Government to use the workers in Northern Ireland as pawns in trying to push us into a situation. He well knows that this is unnecessary, because nearly 50 public sector pay agreements have been awarded in the last year. However, because there is now an opportunity to use public sector pay agreements, they are being used to exert pressure.

As far as we are concerned, and as our leader has made clear, we want to see devolution restored. In fact, devolution stopped only because the Government refused to listen. Furthermore, not only did they refuse to listen but they expected Unionists to stay in positions in Northern Ireland where they would have had to implement the very thing that we believe is destructive to our economy and will destroy the Union as well. That was an act of last resort. Nevertheless, the Government must be aware that the economic impact of the border in the Irish sea must be removed. The shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said today that the red lane was only for goods moving into the Republic and that that surely showed the integrity of the UK internal market. That is not true. There are many businesses in Northern Ireland that will have to use the red lane until they show where their goods have gone.

I spoke to a businessman this morning in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who told me that he had a consignment of goods come in this week with 151 individual items for which he had to identify the country of origin, change the product codes and provide weights and a whole range of other information. He is a small businessman. He sent me a message he had received from a major supplier in Manchester, where he bought 10% of his goods, who had finally said to him, “I can’t trade with you anymore. It is not worth my while, given the amount of paperwork.” He operates in Newtownards and none of his goods sell in the Irish Republic, yet he is subject to all this. Now he has to look for new supply chains, and it has been pointed out here many times before that the Irish Government are not behind the door in exploiting that. In fact, he told me that officials from the trade body in the Irish Republic ring him up on a regular basis and ask why does not buy from such and such a supplier in the Republic. It is no wonder that we have already seen a 15% trade diversion as a result of this.

This is hurting us economically. In the long term, it is hurting us constitutionally, too, with the application of EU law in Northern Ireland. We have seen it in the last week on animal safety standards, which cannot apply in Northern Ireland even though the law was passed by this House. Regulations on illegal immigration cannot apply in Northern Ireland, and there is a danger of having to introduce passport controls if Northern Ireland becomes a magnet for illegal immigration. We now have Bills being passed by Parliament that extend to Northern Ireland but cannot apply to Northern Ireland, and we cannot tolerate that.

Unless those issues are dealt with, and as the Secretary of State well knows, how could any Unionist be expected to accept that trade within our country continues to be disrupted? It will hurt businesses and, in the long term, our constitutional arrangements, causing divergence between Northern Ireland and the country to which we belong.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) indicated that he is prepared to work to resolve that challenge, and he has indicated that he takes personal abuse for working at it—that is the position in which politicians now find themselves in Northern Ireland. We did not create this problem. The Government created this problem, and courageous people such as my right hon. Friend should not be hung out to dry because the Government are not prepared to take on their masters in the EU.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call Jim Shannon. I would be grateful if he tried to confine his remarks to five minutes.