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United Kingdom

Volume 541: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2012

2. What recent assessment he has made of the benefits to Northern Ireland of remaining part of the UK. (97674)

This Government firmly believe in the United Kingdom. We believe that what we can achieve together will always be much more than we can ever do apart. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, we will always back the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.

I am extremely grateful for that reply. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Union ensures that all parts of the UK can be part of a larger and stronger economy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Having only 2.8% of the UK population, Northern Ireland benefits enormously from being part of the United Kingdom. I was interested to see a poll yesterday that had been conducted by Queen’s university, which showed that 82.6% wanted to remain in the UK, and only 17.4% wanted a united Ireland.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in addition to there being enormous advantages and benefits for Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom itself has been strengthened and enriched by the contribution of the people of Northern Ireland—and, indeed, of the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom—not least through the willing and voluntary service of many generations of Ulstermen and women in Her Majesty’s forces?

I entirely endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. Right across every sphere of national life, there are glorious examples—spectacularly so in golf this week—of individuals from Northern Ireland who have shone.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s endorsement of the Union of Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain. He rightly refers to the great sporting success of our golfers, and let us not forget our snooker player who won the world championship. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the opinion poll conducted in the highly respected Queen’s university survey, which showed that more than 80% of people wanted to stay within the United Kingdom. Will he now confirm to the House that he has no intention whatever of organising any kind of border poll in Northern Ireland, given the settled position of the people there and the levels of satisfaction with the present constitutional settlement?

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman on that. As Secretary of State, I have the right to call a poll when I feel like it; I have an obligation to call a poll when there is a clear indication that there would be a vote for a united Ireland. Given that only 17.4% were in favour of that option, and the fact that I have received hardly any phone calls, e-mails or letters on the issue, I have no intention of calling a poll at the moment. We should concentrate on the economy and on building a shared future; that is the real priority for the people in Northern Ireland.

In addition to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said about the economy and the many great advantages to all parts of the United Kingdom of being part of the Union, will he confirm that the present level of public expenditure in Northern Ireland could not be sustained under any other constitutional arrangements, regardless of the destination of the Province?

The Chairman of the Select Committee makes a telling point. Public spending per head in Northern Ireland is currently £10,706, which is about 25% higher than it is in England. That is a huge advantage for Northern Ireland. It gives us time to rebalance the economy as well as showing the key role that membership of the UK plays for the people in Northern Ireland.

Further to the words of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), one of the advantages and benefits of the United Kingdom is a common defence policy, to which men and women of Northern Ireland have contributed greatly. How does the Secretary of State feel, on today of all days, about men and women who are military personnel being made compulsorily redundant?

I am a strong supporter of the military in Northern Ireland. I wear the Royal Irish wristband, because that regiment is stationed at Tern Hill in my constituency. [Interruption.] What I feel is that we inherited a complete mess from the last Labour Government. We are currently borrowing £232,000 a minute, so, sadly, the Government have had to take very difficult decisions.