I beg to move,
That this House notes the significant and positive developments in Northern Ireland in recent years; acknowledges that challenges remain; and reaffirms its commitment to supporting peace, progress and prosperity in every community.
It gives me great pleasure to move the motion on the Order Paper in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and to open the debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Hon. Members do not often get the chance to discuss Northern Ireland on the Floor of the House and I welcome this opportunity. It is good to see many Northern Ireland Members in the Chamber. The motion enables them to speak with a great deal of flexibility on the many issues that affect their constituents.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way so early in the debate. I commend him, as a Front-Bench spokesman, for leading a debate on Northern Ireland. It is important to put on the record that this is the first Front Bencher-led debate on Northern Ireland since the 2010 election.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks—I hope he feels like that at the end of my speech as well as at the beginning. In all seriousness, I am grateful for his remarks. The issues that affect Northern Ireland are taken seriously on both sides of the House. We need to debate them and to consider the challenges.
As a Labour Back Bencher, I, too, welcome my hon. Friend’s decision and the decision of the shadow Cabinet to use this Opposition day for a debate on Northern Ireland. That is a strong sign of the continuing Labour concern and commitment to a lasting peace and lasting prosperity in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that, more than anything, we need more jobs and stronger growth? Does he also agree that, at the moment, Northern Ireland is held back by a failing UK economic policy from a failing and feeble Chancellor?
I thank my hon. Friend for what he said at the beginning of his intervention. I will go on to say something about the economy and the need for jobs and growth in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, but he is right to make that point.
The motion should enable Northern Ireland Members to speak with a great deal of flexibility on the many different issues that affect their constituents, as well as allow them and Members from other parts of the United Kingdom to put forward their views and wider considerations on the topic in hand.
Northern Ireland has been transformed in recent years. I am acutely aware of those on both sides of the House who have made such an enormous contribution to the cause of peace. The fact that many of them are in the Chamber is an indication of their commitment. I place on record my gratitude for their guidance and support in helping me to do the job of shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
This month marks the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I know there are differing views on the agreement within Northern Ireland and within the House, but along with parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government, Labour Members are proud of our role in helping to bring about that historic accord. We believe that the agreement and the agreements that followed have made Northern Ireland a better place, and we stand by them.
Good Friday 1998 was a hugely significant moment, when relations within Northern Ireland and throughout these islands were recognised as complicated and challenging, but intertwined and interdependent. The years that followed were difficult, but much good work was done despite the ups and downs of devolution. Hon. Members in the Chamber, including from the Social Democratic and Labour party, played a valued part in that, as did the Ulster Unionist party.
Six years ago, devolution was fully restored. Since 2007, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson from the Democratic Unionist party have respectively served as First Ministers, alongside Martin McGuinness from Sinn Fein as Deputy First Minister. The transfer of policing and justice powers was another enormous step forward in 2010, when the Alliance party joined the Executive and took the position of Justice Minister.
All this shows that we have come a long way in Northern Ireland. As I say frequently, it is a privilege to hold my position most of all because I get to be in Northern Ireland often. The progress made in past years has given rise to a changed Northern Ireland, one that is confident, optimistic and dynamic, and a great place to live, work, invest in and to visit. This year, Northern Ireland gets the chance to show the world the real Northern Ireland; to show what it is really about. The UK city of culture in Derry is a packed 12 months of art, culture, sport, music and drama. I challenge anyone, anywhere to match the unrivalled programme of events that make Londonderry the place to be every day of 2013. The world will literally come to Northern Ireland for the G8 summit. I commend the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for their work in bringing this prestigious event to one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The world’s spotlight will be on Northern Ireland when the G8 summit takes place in County Fermanagh in June. Does he agree that the summit is an opportunity for the world to see how Northern Ireland has moved forward? There is, however, a worry that those who choose to protest on other issues could do damage. Does he agree that every effort must be made to ensure that security measures are in place so that no damage is caused to Northern Ireland as it moves forward?
I think that every right hon. and hon. Member would agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. There is a right to protest in a democracy, but it has to be done lawfully and peacefully. I do not think that any of us would wish to see anything take place that would detract from an important world summit, and an important example of how Northern Ireland can demonstrate to the whole world the real Northern Ireland and how it has moved forward.
May I associate myself with that last comment and thank the hon. Gentleman for the lead he gives and the work he does in Northern Ireland, together with Ministers? We were all together at the Alliance party conference. The message that people in Northern Ireland need to hear is that the rest of the United Kingdom want them to do well, want them to prosper and want them to succeed. Avoiding violence is the best way to make sure that everybody understands that, and that the message goes out not just to Northern Ireland, but around the world.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, the fact that we are having a debate on the Floor of the House of the House of Commons in London is a statement of the importance that all of us here attach to what is going on in Northern Ireland. We do take notice and we do care.
I hope that all of Northern Ireland will benefit from the G8 summit, and I am sure that the Government will involve the Northern Ireland Executive in an appropriate and beneficial way. I know, too, that the Irish Government hold the presidency of the European Union and will play a key part. The world police and fire games take place this summer and will provide a huge opportunity, with thousands of athletes coming to Northern Ireland from countries and continents the length and breadth of the globe. There is a huge belief in Northern Ireland that things that only a few years ago would have seemed impossible, have been and are being done, and that things are moving in the right direction.
Despite those huge strides, however, we cannot be complacent about the challenges that remain. For us in Westminster, devolution should not mean disengagement. We have a role to play and the Government have a responsibility to help keep Northern Ireland moving in the right direction. On security and the economy, decisions made at a UK level have enormous implications for Northern Ireland, a point made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey).
The continuing activities of dissident republican groups give cause for worry. They are small but dangerous, and have shown that, despite being rejected by the vast majority of the public, they are determined to continue their campaign of violence. The awful murder of prison officer David Black a few months ago should serve as a reminder of their deadly intent. Indeed, as we have seen recently, it is thanks only to the dedication of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Army technical officers and the Security Service that further atrocities have been avoided. The foiling of attacks across Northern Ireland is a credit to these very brave and dedicated individuals who keep people safe and secure, and do their job with courage and professionalism in the face of serious threats against them and their families. They have our utmost gratitude, and the support and admiration of the entire House.
I share the concerns—perhaps the Secretary of State or the Minister can address them—about how the additional security funding from the Treasury has been allocated in the four years from 2011 to 2015. There will be a drop in funding next year from £62 million in 2013-14 to £27 million in 2014-15. The police and security services, as I know we all agree, must have all the resources they need to combat terrorist threats. I know that the Secretary of State agrees, and I am sure that the Government will keep all these matters under review, taking advice from the Chief Constable and the Justice Minister.
The unrest seen in loyalist and Unionist areas following the decision of Belfast city council not to fly the Union flag all year round, also gives cause for concern. There was a sustained campaign of violence and intimidation against public representatives, the police and the wider community. Some of it was orchestrated by paramilitaries, which is unacceptable. There is real frustration and anger in some communities, and I do not downplay that or ignore those who say that their Britishness is being undermined. I hear similar sentiments, albeit from the opposite viewpoint in republican and nationalist areas, where some people feel that their Irishness is not respected or given appropriate recognition. Clearly, these are not easy issues to address.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) was Prime Minister, he announced in July 2007 that he was lifting the ban on the national flag; he encouraged the flying of the Union flag, certainly throughout Great Britain. I wonder what the official policy of the official Opposition is on flying the flag in Northern Ireland. Would it be helpful to increase the flag-flying days in Northern Ireland, as requested by loyalists and others?
Our position is to try to help facilitate agreement between everyone about what solutions can be found, so that Britishness and Irishness is respected. It is difficult, in a particular circumstance, to say, “This is the solution that can or should be found.” Equality of respect between the different traditions in Northern Ireland is extremely important. Flags are a symbol of that, and all one can hope for is that the discussions and ongoing debate will lead to a conclusion that is acceptable to all communities.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the national opinion polls which last year showed that only 21% of nationalists wished to see a united Ireland? This year, the polls say that only 19% of nationalists wish to see a united Ireland. Is that not an indication that their Irishness is diminishing?
I think it is a snapshot of opinion at a particular time. The agreement lays out procedures and processes for opinion to be tested at any time. The reality at the moment is that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and the debate in this Chamber reflects that. The priority for people at present is to resolve some of the ongoing challenges that remain, and to see what more can be done with respect to decisions made here about jobs, growth and investment in all communities in Northern Ireland. I think that people would see that as their priority, whether they consider themselves to be British or Irish.
There is a worry that, in both loyalist and republican areas, there are elements who want to take us back to the bad old days, and that they might be gaining a foothold. The message that the whole House sends out is that they will not succeed.
With the marching season already upon us, I want to make it clear that there is no justification for riots or attacks on the police. The rule of law, including the decisions of the Parades Commission, must be respected and upheld. The peace process shows that, however difficult, in the end dialogue works, so I encourage everyone who wants a peaceful summer in Northern Ireland to talk as neighbours, not enemies, in a spirit of understanding and to find a way forward on contentious issues, such as flags and parades. Like the Secretary of State and the Minister, I would like to do what I can to help facilitate those discussions.
These are difficult economic times. On the economy and welfare, the Government’s policies, decided here, have an impact in every community in Northern Ireland. Last week’s figures showed unemployment in Northern Ireland at a record high of 8.4%, with almost one in four young people out of work, while 20,000 families with children have lost out because of changes to tax credits. Earlier this year, the Chartered Institute of Housing estimated that the bedroom tax would affect 32,000 people in Northern Ireland and have a disproportionate impact because the vast majority of social housing stock in Northern Ireland comprised large family homes. There simply are not the smaller properties for tenants to downsize to.
On corporation tax, we had two years of dither and delay, with the promise of a decision last month, but all the Prime Minister said was that we would have to wait until after the Scottish referendum. Northern Ireland’s economy, like the economy of the rest of the UK, cannot wait until 2014; we need to get moving now. We need a plan for jobs and growth and a plan B for Northern Ireland’s economy to get people, particularly young people and those who have been out of work for a long time, back to work, and to bring investment into Northern Ireland and help small businesses to grow. With proposals for a tax on bank bonuses to tackle unemployment, a temporary cut to VAT to boost demand and the bringing forward of infrastructure projects, we want to support the Executive to get the economy on the right track.
Big challenges remain, and not just on security and the economy, and the Governments in London and Dublin need to continue to help Northern Ireland to meet them. That includes taking responsibility for dealing with the past. For Northern Ireland to move forward, it must agree a way to deal with the legacy of the troubles, the death of 3,000 people and the injury and trauma of tens of thousands more. We are clear about the need for a comprehensive and inclusive process to deal with the past, at the heart of which should be the victims and survivors.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Parades Commission earlier. He will be aware that some of us believe that the commission is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Surely it is time we had a clean sheet of paper to consider some other process for dealing with the parades issue. It is a vital part of Unionist culture, and we need to address it, otherwise we could be in for a difficult summer.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Of course, if the Executive and the parties in Northern Ireland have an alternative to the Parades Commission that they feel would better facilitate parading and deal with some of the issues, that would be a matter for discussion and change, but until such a time, the commission’s decisions are the law of the land, and as such they need to be adhered to. I understand his point—people often make it to me—but at the moment its decisions are the law of the land. It determines the routes and some of the conditions for parading, and we need to adhere to them. If we need an alternative, people must come forward with proposals, but until then, the commission makes the decisions. I know he agrees that it is crucial that the police do not make those decisions. If the current situation is unacceptable and people feel the need for change, it is incumbent on everyone to consider what that change would be.
My hon. Friend rightly talks about healing the past. Might that be helped by people such as the Deputy First Minister and other Northern Ireland Ministers with a history of involvement in the IRA being honest and admitting what they did, rather than always trying to imply that they were totally innocent of the terrible tragedies and lost lives over a long period?
We need a process for addressing all the matters that arise, but at the moment those points are made in a vacuum. We need an overarching process for debating these issues. My hon. Friend obviously knows Northern Ireland well. When I meet victims from all parts of Northern Ireland and from all sides of the community, I am struck by the need to find a better way of dealing with people’s sense of grief and loss, whether in respect of the Ballymurphy families, the Kingsmill families or whoever. There is no quick solution, but a process for discussing how that might be done would be an important step forward.
There is no consensus about what that process should look like, but we have to get people talking and to keep them talking until we find a way forward. I believe that change comes from the bottom up. Hon. Members know of the huge amount of work being done at a grass-roots level, on the ground in communities, to bring people together and help build the shared future we all want. Much of that work is unsung, but it is making a huge difference. I have met individuals and organisations doing important work in difficult circumstances. These people have shown vision and commitment to the community. I have seen the work they do, whether on shared education, sport for all, providing skills and training for young people or giving a voice to pensioners. We should all redouble our efforts to promote and support this crucial work.
Huge progress has been made in Northern Ireland, but we cannot, and must not, be complacent. Northern Ireland is unrecognisable from the place it was, but challenges remain, and we must overcome them by pulling together. That means the Government, the Northern Ireland Executive, business, communities and all those who want to build a better Northern Ireland. We cannot just wish for a better future; we have to work for it.
I would like to reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s words about dealing with the past. I think he referred to a comprehensive and inclusive process to deal with the past. Will he spell out what that might involve, other than talking to one another, cross-community football matches or whatever? Does he wish to see another commission like the recent Eames-Bradley commission? What exactly is “comprehensive” and “inclusive”?
It might be something along the lines that Eames-Bradley suggested; what I am saying is that we have to bring people together to talk about this in the first place, but at the moment I think there is reluctance on the part of the Government to do that. I remember a debate in which the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said that the Northern Ireland Assembly had asked the then Secretary of State to facilitate talks and bring everyone together to see how a comprehensive and inclusive process might work. People get cynical about having more talks, but given the absence of agreement and consensus, and the fact that there are differing views about what should be done, the very least we can do is to bring people together, even if—I will be honest with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)—there is no guarantee that that will succeed. To start to talk about that—to ask how we deal with it, whether elements of Eames-Bradley could have worked, whether other elements could work and what a comprehensive process means, and to include all representatives in Northern Ireland in that process—is to start saying what we can do to address the issue. That is the role that the UK Government could play in trying to facilitate the process that the hon. Lady describes.
The values that were held throughout the peace process are as relevant today as they ever were—the commitment to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships in Northern Ireland, between north and south, and between these islands; the acknowledgement that the tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering, and that those who have died or been injured and their families must never be forgotten; the acceptance that only democratic and peaceful methods can be used to resolve political differences; and, most fundamentally, an understanding that differences still exist between competing, equally legitimate political aspirations, but that we must strive in every practical way towards peace and reconciliation. The Government at Westminster must rededicate themselves to those values, working with the Executive and the Irish Government to fulfil their obligations to help to keep Northern Ireland moving forward. There is still work to be done. Let us do it together, mark the progress, meet the challenges and strive to build peace, progress and prosperity in every community in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on choosing Northern Ireland for today’s debate. Those on the Opposition Front Bench have provided us with a welcome opportunity to consider some hugely important matters in Northern Ireland.
Let me start by paying tribute to the courage and dedication of those on all sides who are responsible for delivering the huge progress we have seen in Northern Ireland over the past two decades. That includes successive UK Governments, our partners in the Irish and US Administrations and, of course, the political leadership in Northern Ireland. They all deserve our sincere thanks. Delivering the peace settlement was greatly assisted by the bipartisan attitude that is generally taken in this House towards matters such as security and constitutional and institutional affairs in Northern Ireland. I very much welcome the continuation of that approach from the shadow Secretary of State.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the bedrock of the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland is provided by the agreement signed on 10 April, 15 years ago. Whether we call it the Belfast agreement or the Good Friday agreement, there can be no doubt that it has transformed life in Northern Ireland, alongside its successor agreements, made at St Andrews in 2006 and Hillsborough in 2010. None of those agreements would have happened without the Downing Street declaration, made 20 years ago by John Major and Albert Reynolds, which started the peace process in earnest.
I agree that we in this House must never, ever take the peace settlement for granted. It will always be important to keep reminding ourselves of the many ways in which the agreements have improved life for people in Northern Ireland and transformed it as a place to live. For example, the agreements secured the constitutional position of Northern Ireland on the basis of consent, meaning that it will never cease to be a part of the United Kingdom unless a majority decides otherwise. That is something that we warmly welcome as a Government who support the Union and believe that all parts of our United Kingdom are stronger together, weaker apart. The agreements also mean that the territorial claim to sovereignty in articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution has now gone.
After years of direct rule from Westminster, we now have an inclusive, devolved Administration working hard for the people of Northern Ireland. Delivery of key public services is firmly in devolved hands, and since the St Andrews agreement, all the main parties are signed up to support for the police and the rule of law. The rights and identities of all parts of the community are fully protected, whether they choose to define themselves as British, Irish or both. There are accountable institutions to deliver practical co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland have never been better. Of course, the greatest achievement of all was the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and the end of the terrorist campaigns that tragically saw 3,500 lives lost. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Gedling that there can be no doubt about the significant challenges that still need to be overcome in security, the economy, and addressing sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland.
Before the right hon. Lady moves on, will she take a brief opportunity to put it on record in this House that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would have responsibility under the legislation to trigger a border poll, if there were a need for that, but that, no matter how provoked by the leader of Sinn Fein, she has absolutely no intention of triggering a border poll in Northern Ireland for the foreseeable and long future?
I can confirm, as I have said a number of times over recent months, that I have no plans to call a border poll. The conditions that require a border poll to take place, as set down in the Belfast agreement, are certainly not present; therefore, I simply do not think it would be a constructive thing to do. Indeed, I feel it would distract from the other big challenges for Northern Ireland, which we are discussing today.
There is a huge amount of common ground between the UK Government and the Irish Government in our strong support for the devolved settlement and the great progress that it has brought to Northern Ireland, so I am delighted to hear that the Taoiseach expressed similar views to those that I have just expressed on a border poll.
This Government strongly believe that we cannot stand still if all the promises and hopes of the agreements are to be properly fulfilled, so we need to address the three challenges that I have set out. Let me turn first to security. As the House will be aware, the threat level from terrorism in Northern Ireland is assessed as severe, meaning that an attack is highly likely. There are still terrorist groups that continue to defy the will of the overwhelming majority of people, north and south, who voted for Northern Ireland’s future to be determined by democracy and consent. As the hon. Member for Gedling said, the terrorists are small in number and have very little popular support, but they have capability and lethal intent, as we saw with the cowardly and horrific murder of prison officer David Black last year.
I, too, would like to thank the brave men and women of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Police Service of Northern Ireland for all the work they do to keep the whole community safe from harm. The PSNI is relentless in its efforts to stop terrorist attacks and put those responsible for them behind bars where they belong. Just one of a number of recent PSNI successes was the interception of a van carrying four mortar bombs bound for Londonderry. If it had got through, it could have led to an horrific attack. The levels of co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Siochana are unprecedented. That co-operation is saving lives. I thank the Irish Government for making it possible.
For our part, on coming to power we endorsed an additional £45 million for the PSNI, to help to address the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. Our 2010 national security strategy made tackling terrorism in Northern Ireland a tier 1 priority, progress on which is regularly discussed at the very highest levels of Government. In 2011, in response to a request from the Chief Constable, we provided an additional £200 million to tackle the terrorist threat. The shadow Secretary of State asked how the funding would be phased over the years. I think I can provide him with some reassurance on that. As a significant proportion of the funding was capital spend designed to provide much-needed equipment—not least the refresh of the PSNI Land Rover fleet—more will inevitably get spent towards the beginning of the period than at the end. From my regular discussions with the Chief Constable, I have no doubt that the extra resource has helped significantly, and I will continue to give the PSNI my fullest possible backing.
The hon. Member for Gedling rightly emphasised the crucial importance of the rule of law, now that we are back into another marching season. So far, the events have gone off well and largely peacefully, which is welcome, but it is always important to reiterate from the Dispatch Box—and indeed from both sides of the House—that Parades Commission decisions must be complied with. There are real dangers for Northern Ireland in any recurrence of the disorder that has too often marred the marching seasons in years past. Such disorder damages Northern Ireland’s image abroad, which makes it harder to build much-needed prosperity.
I endorse entirely the Secretary of State’s comments about the parades that will take place over the next weeks and months. Will she take this opportunity to set out for the House her approach to parading? The Hillsborough Castle agreement incorporates a time scale and a process for the transfer of responsibility for parading from the UK Government to Northern Ireland. We know, however, that that process has stalled, and there are no signs of it being restarted, so far as I can see. This is a continuing area of concern, and I would be grateful if she could tell the House what she intends to do to ensure that the issue is resolved once and for all.
I have had a series of meetings with those involved in parading, including the Parades Commission, the PSNI, and the Loyal Orders, to hear their views on the prospects for and the risks associated with this season’s parades and marches. It is important for the local parties to engage with one another on this issue, and my understanding is that there is an appetite for that to happen. Should the local parties reach consensus on a way to devolve decisions on parading to a new institution or body, the UK Government would of course consider the matter carefully. As the right hon. Gentleman points out, it has always been envisaged, by the previous Government and by this one, that we could move to a devolved solution. We are open-minded and willing to listen to proposals for such a solution from the Northern Ireland political parties, but until such time as the matter is settled, it is vital that the Parades Commission should be supported and that its decisions should be obeyed.
What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure the passing of a legislative consent motion on the Crime and Courts Bill, which will affect the ability of the National Crime Agency to work in Northern Ireland, and the ability of the new proceeds of crime provisions to operate there? What progress is she making on that? We discussed in some detail during our deliberations on the Crime and Courts Bill the fact that, at the moment, there is a big hole in that area, and I would welcome a time scale for the action that she is taking to ensure that the loophole is closed.
It is certainly a great disappointment that the legislative consent motion has not been adopted by the Northern Ireland Executive. I understand that policing matters are hugely sensitive in Northern Ireland, for all sorts of historical reasons, but I am concerned that the abilities and the international reach of the National Crime Agency will not be available to the PSNI. Discussions are continuing on whether it will be possible to persuade the Northern Ireland Executive to provide a legislative consent motion in the future.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the question of the proceeds of crime, a matter currently dealt with by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. It would be unfortunate if such work in Northern Ireland were not taken over by another body. If it is not taken over by the NCA, it would be a matter for the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Executive to consider developing an alternative capability. Discussions are continuing, and I have discussed the matter with David Ford on a number of occasions. He has done an excellent job on trying to build consensus for this change, and we will continue to support him on that. The Home Secretary also takes a close interest in this matter, and she is considering how the NCA will operate in relation to matters that are still the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Government, including UK border matters and matters relating to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
The Government’s first duty in Northern Ireland is to keep people safe, and it is one that we will not shirk. I fully recognise, however, that terrorism will not be brought to an end by security means alone. As well as exercising continuing vigilance on security measures, we need to make progress on our other objectives—on the economy and on addressing sectarian division—if we are to address the problems on which paramilitaries will always try to feed.
I should like to provide some reassurance to hon. Members on the economic points that have been raised today. On taking office, this Government faced the largest deficit in the G20 and the largest in the UK’s peacetime history. In three years, we have cut that deficit by a third, and more than 1.25 million new jobs have been created in the private sector. In Northern Ireland, Labour left us with an economy that was heavily dependent on public spending—even more so than at the time of the Belfast agreement in 1998. Some studies have suggested that public spending accounts for as much as three quarters of gross domestic product in Northern Ireland. Of course I understand the historical reasons that have contributed to that, but it is unsustainable in the longer term. We simply cannot go on as we are.
Under the devolution settlement, many policy areas on the economy and unemployment fall within the Executive’s remit, and I warmly welcome the work that they have done on crucial economic matters, including their great success in attracting inward investment.
There are many things that the Government can take credit for, but the biggest disappointment for anyone in the business community is their failure to take a decision on corporation tax. That failure has been a knockout blow; it is sad, and it reflects a lack of urgency to move forward for the business community.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that the Government are planning to reduce corporation tax across the UK economy. The Prime Minister has also set a clear pathway to a decision on whether corporation tax decisions could be devolved to Northern Ireland. The reality is that significant technical issues need to be resolved before a decision can be taken on the principle of whether to devolve the power. There are also wider constitutional issues to be considered in the context of the referendum on Scottish separation.
Significant economic responsibilities are retained by Westminster, and I am working with the Northern Ireland Executive on our shared objective of rebalancing the economy by boosting the private sector and pursuing a strongly pro-enterprise agenda. That is why we are cutting corporation tax from 28% under Labour to just 20% by 2015—the lowest rate in the G7 and joint lowest in the G20. The Prime Minister has made it clear that a decision on whether to devolve the setting of corporation tax rates to the Northern Ireland Assembly will be made in the autumn of next year.
Our deficit reduction programme has helped to keep interest rates at record lows, helping businesses and households across Northern Ireland, and our new employment allowance will see national insurance cut for 25,000 Northern Ireland businesses, with 10,000 small and medium-sized enterprises paying no tax on jobs at all. This will provide better help for business than Labour’s one-off national insurance tax break.
We have exempted Northern Ireland electricity generators from the carbon price floor, to provide a level playing field with the Republic. That was a key ask from the Northern Ireland business community, as well as from the Executive. We have also devolved long-haul air passenger duty to help to save our direct air link with the United States, again at the direct request of the Northern Ireland Executive.
We certainly believe that enterprise zones such as those being established in England, Wales and Scotland can play a positive part in boosting the private sector and in job creation. Our conversation with the Executive on a fresh economic package to provide additional help for Northern Ireland includes looking again at enterprise zones, to see whether we can make them attractive to the Executive.
Access to the £2.1 billion Aerospace Technology Institute will strengthen Northern Ireland’s reputation as a centre of excellence in aerospace. Also, when I met representatives of HBO in New York recently, I heard at first hand that the Chancellor’s tax relief for high-end TV production was crucial to delivering HBO’s plans to film a fourth series of “Game of Thrones” in Belfast, with all the job opportunities that that will provide.
The Budget gave the Executive an extra £94 million of capital spending, bringing to £900 million the total additional funding provided to Stormont since the last spending review. The Prime Minister announced in March that Northern Ireland would receive an extra €181 million of EU structural funds above what would have been the case if the Government had stuck to the European Commission’s recommended formula. The size of the block grant for Northern Ireland means that public spending per head continues to be 20% higher than the UK average.
We are delivering a £700 tax cut for over 600,000 working people in Northern Ireland, and taking 75,000 of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether. We have dealt with the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual Society and ensured that smaller, more vulnerable savers got most or all of their money back. Our welfare reforms, bitterly opposed by the Labour party, will ensure that work always pays and that people cannot take home more in benefits than the typical family earns by going out to work. These are the measures of a Government who are on the side of those who want to work hard and get on in life.
As for the comments of the hon. Member for Gedling on the spare room subsidy, I recognise how sensitive this issue is, particularly for Northern Ireland where so much social housing is still segregated. The reform we are making brings the social rented sector into line with the rules that the previous Government introduced for the private rented sector. We owe it to all people on housing waiting lists or living in overcrowded accommodation to use our social housing stock as efficiently as possible. A £3.4 million fund has been set up to help in hard cases, which has been doubled by Nelson McCausland over the spending review period. Discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive are continuing on whether they might fund a different approach on the spare room subsidy—at least until the Northern Ireland housing stock has more one and two-bedroom homes.
I thank the Secretary of State for her remarks, but as she is aware, the housing stock does need to transform dramatically. The cost differential between building one and two-bedroom properties and three-bedroom properties is negligible, but we end up with a less flexible housing stock as a result. Has the impact of this measure been properly thought through, particularly in respect of elevating the cost of one and two-bedroom properties through increasing demand, while not reducing the cost of purchasing those properties in comparison with three-bedroom houses?
Will the Secretary of State inform us about ongoing discussions between the Minister for Social Development in the Northern Ireland Executive and appropriate Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions on the issue of getting further flexibility to enable the people of Northern Ireland to deal with these cuts, which are the consequence of welfare reform?
The Secretary of State is explaining the depth of the discussions that are happening, and I am sure that she has been greatly involved in them as they affect Northern Ireland. Will she explain exactly how many one-bed properties are available in Northern Ireland’s social housing stock?
The right hon. Lady will be relieved to know that I am not going to ask her about the bedroom tax, but I do want to take her back to the reference she made to the Presbyterian Mutual Society. It is absolutely right to put on the record the gratitude felt by PMS savers, particularly those saving up to £20,000. The Secretary of State’s immediate predecessor, and indeed the Prime Minister, did a wonderful job on the repayments, but that being the case, I am bewildered, as are many of my constituents, about why she did not make more effort to ensure that the Northern Ireland ombudsman’s report into the PMS fiasco was published in full—only a summary was published. Will she give an undertaking to go back and try to ensure that the ombudsman’s report is published in full?
Obviously, I do not have standing to dictate to the ombudsman what they choose to do with their report, but I am certainly happy to look further into that matter and come back to the hon. Lady about it. I am grateful for her praise of the work done by my predecessor and the Prime Minister.
We are all, of course, concerned about unemployment in Northern Ireland, as it remains far too high, particularly among young people. It is the case that some parts of the community feel that the peace process has not delivered all they hoped it would, so we want to do more to strengthen the economy and help Northern Ireland in the global race for investment and jobs. That is why the Prime Minister decided to bring the G8 summit to County Fermanagh in June. I am grateful for the support for that decision expressed by the hon. Member for Gedling, both in the past and today. This provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to market Northern Ireland as a great place to visit and to do business with. I am working with the Executive to make the most of all the opportunities that that brings us.
I agree that, despite the progress that has been made over the years, it cannot be right that there are still some deep-seated divisions in parts of Northern Ireland society. As I go round Northern Ireland, I see many excellent examples of initiatives designed to bring people together, such as the Jethro centre in Lurgan, Forthspring in West Belfast, and Intercomm in North Belfast. As the flags-related disorder demonstrated, however, more needs to be done to build mutual understanding and mutual trust across sectarian divides.
Policy responsibilities for community relations are devolved, but this Government have always been keen to work with the Executive and to support them in moving things forward. During his visits to Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister highlighted the importance he places on this issue.
Following the meeting with the Prime Minister and the First and Deputy First Ministers in March, we are working with the Executive on a substantial new economic package, alongside measures that we hope will build a more cohesive and stable society.
The package is in addition to the support Northern Ireland already receives from the UK Government. The Government are examining ideas on making enterprise zones more attractive, helping the Executive to take forward infrastructure projects, improving access to bank finance, and various other measures. Meanwhile, the Executive have the opportunity to use their devolved responsibilities to develop economic and social measures, including work on a shared future which we are all committed to delivering.
Put simply, this is a two-way street: the greater the Executive’s ambition, the more the Government will be able to do to support and help them. This is about partnership and working together on our shared goals, and I am optimistic about the chances of achieving a good outcome for Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Gedling spoke about dealing with the past.
Before the right hon. Lady leaves the point about the provision of extra help for Northern Ireland, she will be aware that a different interpretation was put on her remarks, not least by people in the Belfast Telegraph who described what she said as tantamount to blackmail. They feared that money might be withheld unless politicians in Stormont made a certain amount of progress, as viewed by the Government. Will she clarify exactly what she means in her approach to this matter? Clearly, what she has enunciated today is certainly a more constructive way of putting it, but can she rule out the suggestion or fear among many that this money will be held as a form of blackmail to get the Executive to do certain things?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that this package is about working together. The shared objective of the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government is to rebalance the economy and to address sectarian divisions, and we feel that we have a good opportunity to work together on those crucial issues. As I have said, the package is about new measures and new ways of supporting the Northern Ireland economy, rather than any subtraction from the existing support for Northern Ireland.
As the hon. Member for Gedling will appreciate, this is no easy issue. His party’s Government tried to resolve it, but were unable to do so, because they could not build enough support for the legislation that they were considering. It is important to accept that the UK Government do not own the past, and that progress cannot be made solely at their behest. Progress requires the building of consensus between different sides and different parties in Northern Ireland. We are certainly willing to play our part in efforts to deal with these matters, as was demonstrated by the Prime Minister’s response to the Bloody Sunday report and the de Silva review, but we do not believe that singling out a few more cases for costly open-ended inquiries is the right way forward.
I pay tribute to the work that is being done by many groups and organisations in Northern Ireland to help people understand the past and give them a chance to tell their stories. Yesterday I visited the University of Ulster to learn more about its CAIN-ARK network, a resource shared with Queen’s University Belfast which has had 64 million page views and which contains a huge amount of material on the troubles. I encourage anyone who wants to understand Northern Ireland’s past to visit the website.
Fifteen years ago, the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland made an historic choice: they decided that their future would be determined by democracy and not by violence. The Belfast agreement and its successors have given us a platform on which to build a new, confident, inclusive and modern Northern Ireland whose best days lie ahead. There is no doubt that we have come a long way—in many respects, Ireland is unrecognisable in comparison with the place that it was two decades ago when John Major made the Downing Street declaration—but much remains to be done to heal long-standing divisions in Northern Ireland society. In a number of ways, the peace process is still “work in progress”.
No one should doubt the determination of the UK Government to move forward, working in partnership with both the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government, in our efforts to create a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland of which all its citizens can be proud.
Order. The winding-up speeches will begin at 5.15 pm, and 11 Back Benchers have indicated that they wish to take part in the debate. Lengthy contributions will not be met with universal joy by others who wish to contribute, so I ask Members please to be mindful of others when making their own speeches.
It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State. I apologise to both the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), and the Secretary of State for having been absent for part of their speeches; I had to give evidence to a Committee upstairs.
I welcome the debate and thank the hon. Member for Gedling for choosing the subject and for the way in which the motion is worded. I think it right to acknowledge the progress that has been made in recent years, and I trust that the motion will gain the full support and endorsement of Members in all parts of the House.
Both the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State spoke of the enormous progress that has been made, and rightly described the present situation in Northern Ireland as being virtually unrecognisable in comparison with the situation 30 or even 20 years ago. We do not underestimate the violence and the threat that are out there, or the concern that exists among members of society as a whole and among the security forces about the harm that could be inflicted by some of the terrorists who are intent on disrupting society. We bear in mind the terrible murder of David Black, and other incidents in which members of the security forces have narrowly escaped injury and death. We know of the fantastic work done by our security forces in daily protecting life and limb, and the interventions and interceptions which, in various instances—almost too numerous to recall here—have thwarted violent attacks by terrorists. We acknowledge the great progress that has been made, and, while we also recognise the challenges that are out there, everyone in society should bear in mind the enormous strides that have been made in terms of political stability.
It is now taken for granted that the Northern Ireland Assembly will see out its full term, and will see out its next term in full as well. However, not long ago—not 20 years ago but less than five or six years ago—people were predicting that the Assembly would not last four months, let alone four years.
We opposed the Belfast agreement because of its inherent flaws and the fact that people who were in government were still not supporting the police and the rule of law; they were still with the armed gunmen and we still had no decommissioning. We opposed all that, and I remember the Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair, telling us it was impossible to get an alternative. But we did get an alternative, and we did so because we insisted that the rule of law had to be paramount, that there had to be support for the police and that both sides of the community had to give their support and consent to the institutions in Northern Ireland. That was the fatal flaw with the Anglo-Irish agreement we debated not long ago in this House and also with the Belfast agreement.
Thankfully, however, as the opinion polls bear out, in the period since 2006-07, there has been overwhelming support for the Assembly and the institutions, on the basis that everybody is now involved—everybody has given their consent and everybody has been consulted. While it is far from perfect, it has at least gone through that important democratic test. Under the Belfast agreement, the Assembly crashed three or four times, but we have had a period of stability since 2007.
There is also increased support for the Union, as has been alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). One of the most important and significant developments in recent years has been the increased support for the Union in all sections of the community. Those who describe themselves as British have, of course, always supported the link with the rest of the United Kingdom, but the numbers of those who describe themselves as nationalists and those who now describe themselves as Northern Irish who say they wish to remain part of the United Kingdom or that they would not vote for a united Ireland have also increased very considerably. That, too, is a mark of the progress that has been made.
Of course people have the absolute right to wish to leave the United Kingdom and join in a different set of arrangements, as long as they pursue those objectives politically and democratically, but what is happening in Northern Ireland is clear evidence that people are increasingly content to work within the parameters of the United Kingdom. Indeed, a recent opinion poll in the Belfast Telegraph showed there was a majority for that in every county in Northern Ireland, and, indeed, a majority among nationalist voters overall. That is extremely significant, and it was unimaginable 20 years ago.
That is absolutely right and, interestingly, when Sinn Fein voters were polled, a quarter of them also said they would stay in the United Kingdom. So, certainly from our perspective, things are changing in Northern Ireland in a positive and good way.
We face a number of challenges, however, including some major economic issues. We have heard a lot about them already today. In trying to build the economy, tourism is a key sector, and today is Titanic Belfast’s first anniversary. That is an iconic building, and I take some pride in it because I brought the project to the very first meeting of the Executive when I was Economy Minister in 2007, and we managed to get some substantial financial support for it. People at that stage queried whether it would be a success, but today it can be proved that it has been a success, because in the first year there have been 807,340 visitors, almost half a million of them from outside Northern Ireland and from 128 different countries. That contributed almost £30 million to the economy. It is a fantastic benefit to Belfast and to Northern Ireland as a whole. It is a world-class tourism project and product.
I recently visited the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre, built under the Northern Ireland Executive, which is attracting lots of visitors, again from outside Northern Ireland, which is the key point because it has added value to the economy. In 2012, the Olympic year, hotel occupancy in Northern Ireland in June was at the same level as that in central London, which is incredible when one thinks about it.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to put his finger on where visitors are coming from. It is not a marginal outside increase. Apparently, of the million people who have visited the Giant’s Causeway and the Titanic centre this year, 60% are from outside the United Kingdom.
Yes, and these are very important figures, because in the past a lot of tourist attractions were dependent on repeat visitors from within Northern Ireland or from over the border, which is increasingly unsustainable in the long run. But sights of the magnitude of the Giant’s Causeway, the Titanic, St Patrick’s trail and Londonderry and the walls are all great visitor attractions. Londonderry is the UK city of culture this year. We have the G8 coming to Fermanagh as well, so there are lots of fantastic things happening in Northern Ireland. When we consider what it was like just a generation ago, we can see what can be done when politics works, and we all have a part to play in building on the peace and stability that has underpinned that progress.
Recently, of course, times have been tough. Despite the economic downturn and recession, we have still been able in Northern Ireland to attract high degrees of foreign direct investment. We are still the second best area in the United Kingdom outside London for attracting such investment, which is a very significant statistic. In the past five years, the Northern Ireland Executive have spent more on infrastructure—roads, schools, hospitals and housing—than at any time in Northern Ireland’s history. More jobs than at any time in history have been delivered by the Executive, at a time when we are delivering the lowest local taxes in the whole of the United Kingdom. Peace, stability and opportunity make a real difference to the lives of those who live in Northern Ireland.
That said, Mr Deputy Speaker—I am conscious of your earlier injunction—I want to say that it is important, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, that the Government act on corporation tax. While we welcome the moves that were made in terms of the help that the Secretary of State enunciated and the financial backing given to the Executive, and although the Executive have done a considerable amount on business rates and domestic rates and in helping lending to small businesses, and in backing the work of Invest Northern Ireland, there is no doubt, and it is the consensus among the political parties in Northern Ireland, and among business and industry, that what is needed is a game changer. If we are to alleviate high unemployment and reduce dependency on the public sector, something like the devolution of corporation tax is needed to make that happen. Of course, it is important that we retain our 100% regional aid status as far as Europe is concerned.
As for the political challenges that we faced, very briefly we have come a long way to achieve the stability and durability of the Executive and the Assembly. That must not be underestimated and should never be taken for granted. We all must continue to work hard to make sure that it is not undermined. But there is a case to be made—the people of Northern Ireland on all sides have expressed this many, many times—for reducing the bureaucracy surrounding the Assembly and the Government Departments. We have too many Government Departments with too big an Assembly. Too much is being spent on governing the place.
I welcome the fact that the review of public administration will reduce the number of councils, streamlining local government. We on the DUP Benches support the reduction in the size of the Assembly, support the reduction in the size of Government and support the idea of introducing an Opposition to the Assembly set-up, but there are other parties in the Assembly that, to varying degrees, do not lend support to that. I hope that, in the coming years, we can look back on this debate and say, “From then on, there was the desire to make devolution, and the Assembly and the Executive, work even better.”
The issues to do with the shared future, the past and how we can ensure that all sections of our community benefit from peace and stability, are absolutely key. I do not have time to go into all those, but it is incumbent on us all to work together—all the political parties in Northern Ireland, with the Government here—to move these issues forward. They cannot be left in abeyance. It is absolutely critical. I know that in the constituency that I represent, North Belfast, there are many people who, when they consider the impact of welfare reforms, or the economy, or the reductions in the public sector, and the wider political process, do have a sense of grievance. While we acknowledge and address those issues, it is the job of all of us to ensure that the positive is put forward, that we continue the progress of the last 15 years over the next 15 years, and that we continue to build on the peace and stability that has been created in Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). I thank the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) for introducing this welcome debate. I strongly approve of the balanced wording of the motion, which recognises how much progress Northern Ireland has made during the last 15 years, while recognising that more work needs to be done. As well as the politicians in this place, it is the local politicians but especially the people of Northern Ireland who have made that progress. Over many years, they have shown enormous resolve in the face of a desperately difficult time. I pay tribute to the ordinary people of Northern Ireland for everything that they have done, and for being so resolute in their determination to come through very difficult times.
Probably everyone in the House today will remember the deeply difficult times of the 1970s. Last November, I had the rather sad occasion, with the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), to visit Enniskillen to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the bomb there. I was in the Republic on 15 August 1998 when the Omagh bomb went off, and I was in the Republic when David Black was murdered, and I remember the revulsion that was felt in the Republic of Ireland at those events. That demonstrates that we stand together with the Taoiseach and the Government of southern Ireland in condemning these acts and in being determined to find a way forward towards greater peace and a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
I also remember many great things from my regular visits to Northern Ireland over many years now. The hon. Member for Gedling mentioned the wonderful attractions there, including the Giant’s Causeway and the visitors centre there. I am sure the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) welcomes the new golf course that is to be built in that area. At long last, he probably says, but at least it is on its way. For Londonderry to be the city of culture this year is a tremendous accolade. As has been mentioned, the Titanic quarter has been open for a year, and I have had the pleasure of visiting it twice. What a wonderful visit it makes for. The G8 is coming to Northern Ireland. To accommodate all the visitors who have been mentioned, Northern Ireland has some of the best hotels in the world, which perhaps is not recognised or remembered. As well as meeting the people of Northern Ireland, one of the great pleasures of visiting the Province is to stay in its wonderful hotels. There is an awful lot to be proud of and to look forward to in Northern Ireland.
I have the honour of chairing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and one of the ways that we think will cement the relative peace that has been attained in Northern Ireland is to try to help the economy and move it to better times. As has been mentioned, the economy throughout the United Kingdom is difficult. It is difficult throughout Europe. It is difficult in various parts of the world. For the record, I for one believe that the Government are on the right track in trying to put the economy right. We are not in a mess because we did not spend enough money, but because the previous Government spent too much money. We cannot get away from that. The Government are right to try to rebalance the economy in the way that they are.
But with specific reference to Northern Ireland, there are one or two issues that we should discuss here today that have been touched upon. I have just complimented the Government, but I will make a mild criticism now. I do not think that it is right to delay the decision on devolving responsibility for setting corporation tax until after the Scottish referendum. I see no relevance at all. In fact, I think that people in Scotland would be somewhat encouraged to vote to remain in the Union if we could demonstrate that there is flexibility to do different things in different parts of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another country, and the circumstances there are different. I certainly congratulate the Government on their reduction in the rate of corporation tax and look forward to the downward trend continuing to 20%, but we must remember that the level of corporation tax in the Republic of Ireland is still only 12.5%. If we want to know the importance of that rate to the Republic of Ireland, we need only look back to the financial difficulties it had a couple of years ago, when this Parliament tried to help. Even with all its difficulties, and despite pressure from the European Union, it stuck to that rate and would not budge, because it knew that it was the best thing it had for attracting inward investment. The Government need to speed up their decision on whether to devolve the rate of corporation tax to the Assembly.
Great progress has been made on air passenger duty. I hope that the Select Committee was influential—I think that it was—in enabling the rate for long-haul flights from Northern Ireland to be reduced and giving the Assembly responsibility for it. However, a large number of flights to and from Northern Ireland are short-haul, and we feel that more work needs to be done in that regard, because the relatively high percentage of tax for short-haul fares is a disincentive. I know that that applies across the United Kingdom, but Northern Ireland is different, as the only realistic way to travel to and from Great Britain is by air, so much more thought needs to be put into that.
The third matter I want to mention in relation to the Northern Ireland economy is laundering and smuggling. Historically, a lot of money has been lost in taxation through laundering and smuggling, particularly of fuel and tobacco. The Select Committee looked at that in great detail and was horrified by a number of things: first, how much money is lost; and secondly, how few custodial sentences are given to criminals who abuse the system to such an extent. It is not a victimless crime, because it is taking money away from hospitals, schools and police forces and from the taxpayers who contribute the money in the first place. The Committee was also concerned about the small progress made on developing technology that would greatly reduce, although not entirely prevent, the amount of fuel that can be smuggled and counterfeited in Northern Ireland. I urge the Government to continue their work and increase the intensity of their talks with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to move towards a better system for eradicating what is a very serious and costly crime.
I will detain the House no longer, as I am well aware of the number of Members who wish to speak. I look forward to hearing what they have to say. I finish by echoing what has been said. I think that all of us in this House are looking to create a Northern Ireland that is far better for the next generation than the era suffered by the past generation.
I am pleased and privileged to rise to support the motion, and I do so in the strongest possible terms. I want to thank the Labour party and the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), for bringing the motion to the House and, with it, the opportunity not only for myself, but for others, to make comment.
I am always pleased to note the widespread support across the House for peace, progress and prosperity in Northern Ireland. The 15th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, or the Belfast agreement—whatever we choose to call it—which we celebrated two weeks ago, is a significant milestone in our steady progress away from conflict. I recently had the opportunity to pay tribute in the House to the work done by previous Governments, both Irish and British, in negotiating and signing the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. For me, that agreement laid the foundation for a sea change in relationships between our two countries. It not only began to fundamentally change relationships between Ireland and Britain, but laid the foundations for the peace process and the Good Friday or Belfast agreement that followed in 1998, which in turn raised opportunities for further positive transformation of the intergovernmental relationships to a whole new level. For so many in both countries, nothing gave better expression to the change and transformation in those relationships than the historic visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland two years ago.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Prime Ministers of both Ireland and Britain for their commitment to securing peace over the past 30 years, and that gratitude continues to be owed to the current incumbents, Prime Minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
As I look around this Chamber, I see many Members on both sides who have made significant contributions to bring about peace in Northern Ireland and the transformation of the relationship with the Irish Republic.
Although many Prime Ministers—from Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—have made a contribution, will the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge the significant contribution made by the United States Government, who have also played a great part?
The hon. Gentleman must have been reading my notes over my shoulder—the rules of the House should be amended to prevent Members from copying others—because my next line is that we should also note that we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the United States and the various Administrations in Washington throughout that period.
Yes, much of the violence has been taken out of the equation in Northern Ireland. Relative peace and increased stability have been welcomed for some years, but we have not yet reached the promised land. Before the current financial crisis there were some green shoots of economic recovery, but they have been difficult to sustain. We have not come so far that we can afford any complacency. It is not just a matter of being eternally vigilant against the residual threat presented by those who are, though small in numbers, still dangerous and still wedded to the ways of violence, terrorism and intimidation.
Although the Good Friday agreement won overwhelming support across the island of Ireland, it was, for many, perhaps, a conditional support that should not be taken lightly or for granted. Although people voted for peace in overwhelming numbers in 1998, they wanted more: they also voted for hope and the right to hope for a much better future. They voted—this is better put in the words of Seamus Heaney—that “hope and history” would “rhyme”. They voted for economic opportunity for their children. They voted for a new dispensation that would tackle the root causes of division and ensure that violence would never again gain a significant foothold in their world or in the politics of Northern Ireland.
However much our people may differ on politics or on our views of the past, present or future, there is a shared conviction in Northern Ireland that our future must be different from what went before, in that it must be much better. They know that, however difficult it may be, that future has to be a shared future.
We have had 15 years of congratulating each other that the killing has stopped, but that is not enough any more. We need to move on and get some sense of greater progress. As long as we fail to tackle the underlying causes of the division in Northern Ireland, people will not feel safe and we will not be safe. We need a credible, practical, workable and productive cohesion-sharing and integration strategy, and we need it now.
The return of devolution was such an important goal that many people got impatient with me and colleagues in the SDLP for sharing our anxieties and our concerns and preaching that anxiety at times over the past few years, but now at last that important truth is beginning to be recognised. We note that in the past few weeks the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has found it necessary to state publicly in the strongest terms that the support of the UK Government for our Executive is conditional on progress being made in tackling community division. A couple of days before that the Irish Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore, said clearly that our First Minister and Deputy First Minister are mandated by the Good Friday agreement, which put them in office in the first place, to work for reconciliation. The time has come for us to produce some meaningful results.
We warmly welcome these new tones, this new realism, because it had been missing from the communications between Governments and from the two Governments for some years. We must recognise that the two Governments are the ultimate guarantors of the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement.
In my mind there is another side to reconciliation, the one that gets too little recognition, and it is this: tackling division is honourable and a good thing in itself, but there is a little more to it. Tackling division is an absolute necessity if we are to have any hope of achieving the prosperity mentioned in the motion. Division carries a direct cost or an absolute cost, but worse still for me, it also carries an opportunity cost. Beyond the challenge of tackling division, there is so much unfinished business in the major challenge of building prosperity. We will have difficulty finding the road to prosperity if we do not first find the road to maturity in dealing with flags and parades and the unhealed wounds and scars of the past.
I agree fully with the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but unfortunately we do not have or have not had until now Government Ministers queuing up to estimate the foreign investment opportunities lost as a result of the disorder in the past few months, but let us in the House not deceive ourselves. There is an economic cost to disruption, violence and disturbance in the streets, and I believe, unfortunately, that the same young men who wrapped themselves in flags are the very ones most likely to pay that cost. They are the ones who will suffer and remain on the margins.
We have had our peace process and it was good. We now need a prosperity process vigorously backed by the two Governments. It is with regret that I say that although the current Government have done many good things for the economy, too little progress has been made in helping to improve our economy, with unemployment currently at record levels. As others have pointed out, we needed that reduction in corporation tax to give us the rocket boost—for want of a better description—to get us moving economically. The level of youth unemployment in particular is a desperate cause for concern and cannot be isolated from the ongoing social unrest.
I do not doubt the Government’s stated commitment to rebalancing the economy, but the current economic path laid out for us will not take Northern Ireland to economic stability. We need investment in our economy and we need to create the economic confidence to build growth and develop the private sector. This Government’s attachment to austerity is unlikely to do that for us. On an island of fewer than 6 million people—we have fewer than 2 million in Northern Ireland and fewer than 4 million in the Irish Republic—economic and cross-border partnership is essential. In that context, we need an enduring commitment to serious north-south partnerships and projects such as the Narrow Water bridge and the A5, both of which will open up significant economic opportunities for Northern Ireland. The SDLP will continue to make a positive case for that kind of north-south partnership.
That is not to sidestep our responsibilities and commitments within the devolved Executive in Northern Ireland. I believe that our highest priority is to tackle division and to do so now.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) and to participate in this important debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) made reference to the motion, which has three important principal components that everybody is recognising today. The first is the “significant and positive developments” that have taken place; the second is the challenges that remain; and the third is that this House is committed to the process as we move forward. It is good to see consensus in the Chamber today and I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on bringing this debate to the Floor of the House.
I have always been reticent about participating in Northern Ireland debates. They could be compared with debates on Europe, in which everybody pulls out their old speech, dusts it off and reads it. I am pleased to see that that is no longer the case with Northern Ireland debates. The hon. Member for Belfast South spoke about raising the bar. In each of these debates, we take stock of what has happened and raise the bar even further. That shows the progress that has been made and is being made.
Perhaps I am personally marred by my experience of serving in Northern Ireland in the ’90s. My life was spent in uniform, stopping cars and asking for identity documents. I lived on fortified border checkpoints, in the Strabane and Omagh areas, that would now be more associated with Helmand province. It is pleasing that that world no longer exists and that things have moved on.
I recall two striking events. On one occasion, I went into a newsagents in my uniform and asked for some chewing gum. The lady refused to serve me because she would get a brick through her window if she was seen doing so. On another occasion, I bumped into a friend from university in Strabane while he was coming out of WH Smith. We had not seen each other for a while and he wanted to give me a hug, but he realised that he could not because I was in full uniform. He was a citizen of the area and I was doing my job in uniform, and I thought how mad that dichotomy was within the UK. I am pleased to learn of the advances that have taken place.
There is a huge irony here. All of us travel abroad occasionally. Wherever we are in the world, if we want to have a good drink, make some new friends and feel at home, we end up going to the Irish bar. How different it was when I served in Northern Ireland. I would go away for two or three months on leave, go to Irish bars and then return back to the situation in Northern Ireland. I found that very strange indeed.
As we approach the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, I am pleased by how much progress has been made towards a more cohesive and stable society, as more and more powers are devolved. On security, the watch towers have all but gone and the civil police now lead on security matters. The Army is confined to barracks or has withdrawn completely.
Politically, the Northern Ireland Assembly continues to sit. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said that there had been questions over whether the Assembly would continue to exist. It is there, it works and it is making decisions. It is taking the lead increasingly using its devolved powers. Such is the progress that the UK decided that the G8 summit should take place at Enniskillen.
Economically, Northern Ireland has of course been affected by the global downturn, as have all parts of the UK. However, it is now seen as a place to invest in. Steps are being taken to renew the economy and to rebalance it away from an over-reliance on the public sector.
The tourism industry has been mentioned, and I, too, was going to mention Titanic Belfast, not least because there is a synergy with my constituency. Just down the road from my constituency in Southampton is the other museum that recognises what happened with the Titanic. I believe that the Belfast project cost something like £100 million and about 290,000 visitors a year were expected, but it is now exceeding 800,000 visitors a year. That is a fantastic indication of where the tourism industry as a whole is going. Northern Ireland is now seen as a place to invest, and we must also mention the developing aerospace industry.
Time is short, so I will not repeat the Secretary of State’s comments about the important aspects of the Chancellor’s Budget that will affect Northern Ireland as well as the rest of the country.
It is clear that more needs to be done, and we must not be complacent about the situation in Northern Ireland. There remains a minority who seek to fan the flames of violence, turn the clock back and undo all the good work. Last year there were about 60 shooting incidents and 30 bomb attacks, along with half a dozen or so paramilitary-style attacks including punishment shootings performed on both sides of the sectarian divide. Of course, compared with more than a decade ago when there were more than 600 shooting and bombing incidents annually, progress has absolutely been made, but that shows that the threat level has to remain at severe.
We police by consent in this country and expect the majority of the people to obey the law. We do not live in a police state. Long-term peace will prevail only if all of Northern Ireland condemns acts of terrorism and says that they are not the present or future that we want. We want a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland. Every time a bomb goes off, it deters another investor. Every time another shooting occurs, it deters another visitor or holidaymaker who was considering going to Northern Ireland. We must never forget that.
I welcome the debate and the House’s interest in continuing to examine the issues, challenges and opportunities for Northern Ireland. I am pleased to see the cross-party consensus on how we should move forward. I join others in saying that more must be done to ensure that Northern Ireland builds on its recent successes and strengthens democracy so that it does not turn back to the violence that it experienced in the past.
I, too, welcome the debate. Fifteen years on from the Good Friday agreement, it is timely for us to take the opportunity to reflect on where we are. I thank the shadow Secretary of State and the Labour party for bringing forward the debate. It is evidence of his active interest in Northern Ireland issues, and all of us welcome it. I also thank the Secretary of State for her remarks, and I welcome the fact that throughout what has been a difficult baptism into the Northern Ireland political scene, she has handled herself with great grace and courage. I pay tribute to her for that.
I want to acknowledge at the outset that there has been major progress in Northern Ireland, because we sometimes fail to acknowledge that when we talk about where we are now. Belfast is a transformed city from the one in which I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, and the contrast between the two cities is stark. I think the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) would recognise that from their own constituencies and the city centre, as I do from mine.
The Good Friday agreement and the St Andrews agreement have moved us on, and the Assembly has given us an opportunity to manage the political differences and start to deliver on the social and economic issues that matter to our constituents. The right hon. Member for Belfast North is right that we should not take that progress for granted, and nor should we treat it lightly or endanger it. However, while that progress has been delivered at least partially at political level, I do not believe that the reconciliation that was hoped for has been delivered. The hon. Member for Belfast South captured something of my personal frustration about that. We have a rigidly consociational model of democracy in Northern Ireland, which was chosen as a means of managing our divisions, but in many ways it has fixed those divisions and given them a permanence that I believe is unhelpful. It has almost incentivised division, and we need to consider that carefully in how we make progress with the Assembly and its structures.
Even politically, where the Assembly has delivered, it has created stability but not necessarily dynamism, agility or flexibility. We all hoped that devolution would bring those things. Our people are patient but frustrated that progress has been slow, even on issues of policy that at first glance appear non-contentious. There is built-in inertia in the system, and reform to make it more nimble would be hugely helpful to us all. Such disaffection with the performance of devolution is a risk to something that I value as a committed devolutionist. The Assembly faces a challenge of making itself valuable for more than merely managing political stalemate and division, and for actually delivering results. That is where the focus needs to be.
Many of us who lived through the troubles will welcome and value at personal level the current peace. A whole generation of young people, however, have not had that experience, and perhaps place less emphasis on the importance of where we are now versus where we used to be. Those without direct, lived experience listen to the history of the troubles, and narratives constructed around that history can endanger it by glamorising or justifying it in terms that allow people who feel they have no stake in current society to think that a return to violence is a way to claim a place in the future. We must deal with such issues in a sensitive way.
I could say many things but I want to reflect briefly on six points that we must consider if we are to realise the potential not only of the agreement and the Assembly, but of Northern Ireland as a whole. Three of those things look backwards and are historical or legacy issues; three look forward—and all are crucial if we are to make progress.
The past is the best place to start, because we must agree a framework to deal with it. Dealing with the past properly, whether in terms of victims, or of commemorations and memorialisation, is hugely important. Lack of a comprehensive approach allows some to peddle partial and skewed narratives that perpetuate misunderstanding and compound hurt, which brings huge attendant risk. All parties to the agreement—both Governments as well as Northern Ireland parties—must address the matter, and I renew my call to the Secretary of State to look at initiating the all-party talks for which we have previously called.
The current process with the Historical Enquiries Team and the series of inquiries—albeit of individual significance—risk producing retrospective narratives that do not correlate with the reality we lived through. I agree with the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) who said that we need paramilitaries to engage in an honest discussion. If the full truth is to be told, it cannot simply be about story telling; it must be about truth telling and it must be the whole truth.
Another legacy issue is that of parades. Parades and demonstrations are sensitive and require careful management in a divided society. The right to parade and to free assembly are important and must be protected, but they must be balanced and managed against the right to live free of harassment and intimidation. Current law and legal processes must be respected and supported by all elected representatives. If people have issues with the Parades Commission, the onus is on them to find an agreed alternative process to deal with those issues. That has not been possible to date, but in the interim we must support the rule of law.
The third issue is flags and emblems—a sensitive issue as I think we all recognise, perhaps more today than ever. There are two distinct issues of policy. One concerns the proper display of national flags and symbols of Government, for example on civic and Government buildings, and the other is the use and abuse of flags on street furniture around the Province to create a chill factor in Northern Ireland that is deeply unwelcome and unhelpful. On the first issue, it is currently a zero-sum game. Flags fly in a number of Unionist-controlled councils all the time, but not at all in nationalist-controlled councils. Such a policy fails to recognise that flags are constitutional symbols, and not just tribal banners. I believe that the review of public administration going through the Assembly provides the opportunity to resolve this matter once and for all, rather than forming 11 new councils that will fight the battle one at a time. We should take that opportunity to develop a solution acceptable to everyone.
Displays on public property also need to be addressed. That is illegal under the Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1993, and in those terms should not be permitted. If a parent-teacher association sticks a flag or notice on a lamppost it will be fined, but if someone puts on a balaclava or a mask and puts a flag on a lamppost, they will not be fined. There must be some kind of regular approach to dealing with such things. We have suggested regulation rather than an outright ban to give space to those who wish to demonstrate and display emblems and symbols. However, they should do so with consultation and assurances in place, and the time of such displays should be limited so that no area becomes permanently marked-out territory.
Let me move on to the forward-looking issues. First, and most important, is the economy. If we want a prosperous, stable and peaceful future for Northern Ireland, we must deal with sectarianism, because it puts off three key groups on which our economy will depend: indigenous entrepreneurs, who will go elsewhere; inward investors, who will take their investment elsewhere; and tourists who will take their holiday money elsewhere if we do not resolve these issues.
The economic impact not only of unrest but of ongoing sectarianism on small and medium-sized indigenous local businesses is profound. In the past three to four weeks, I have dealt with businesses in my constituency that have had to wrestle with sectarian workplace disputes and with relocation, because sectarian symbols have dissuaded workers from going to their workplace. Protection rackets run by paramilitary organisations have impacted on businesses, as has the outworking of civil disturbances. Those additional challenges faced by businesses in Northern Ireland are not faced by our competitors. We already have a higher cost base, although I welcome what the Government are doing to reduce it. We are competing on a world stage, and we need to resolve those impediments. That must be done by parties on these Benches, with the assistance of the two Governments.
Those problems disproportionately affect disadvantaged areas—not because they are more sectarian, but because the expression is more visible in those neighbourhoods. That drives jobs out of those areas and accelerates the brain-drain of talented young people from Northern Ireland. We need to deal with that.
To deliver outcomes that achieve social justice, we must work with communities honestly and talk about how we can attract investment to disadvantaged and deprived neighbourhoods. That is a problem for inward investors. As other hon. Members have said, we have performed exceptionally well in attracting investment. If the Government devolved corporation tax, we would perform even better—I could not let that go unsaid, and I am sure other hon. Members agree with me. As the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Committee has indicated, if the Government dealt with air passenger duty, it would be a huge help.
However, we should bear in mind that the G8 and other high-profile events that help us to promote and build our brand can be undermined instantly if scenes of bomb alerts or civil unrest are broadcast around the world. Inward investment is infected by instability. No one seeking to locate a business in my community comes to talk to me about parades or flags or the past, but they ask, “Is it safe? Is it stable?” All those things feed into the answer to the question.
The same is true of tourism. The Northern Ireland share of tourism is much lower than that in the Republic of Ireland. The entire differential cannot be accounted for by the weather—in Northern Ireland, by “weather”, we generally mean “rain”. Product has been invested in, for which huge credit is to be given to the Northern Ireland Executive and others. Derry city of culture is a fantastic showcase for the quality and diversity of our artistic and cultural offer. In my constituency, we have Titanic Belfast, a celebration of our maritime heritage. It is a world-class tourist centre that is well visited—it celebrates its first anniversary today. There are smaller projects, too. Things such as the Connswater Community Greenway in East Belfast highlights heritage in my constituency as diverse as George Best’s first home, Van Morrison’s old stomping grounds, which are immortalised in his lyrics, and C. S. Lewis’s strong connections to the constituency and that literary heritage. Those are all reasons to stay in East Belfast, to spend in East Belfast and to be part of what we are growing, but with few exceptions people will be wary of travelling to somewhere on holiday that is perceived to be either dangerous or unstable. We need to deal with those issues.
The second future issue is education. We have massive issues with education. We have some excellent schools, which we should celebrate, but we have a long, under-achieving tail. We need to address that educational disadvantage, because it can breed long-term disengagement and disaffection in communities. People believe not only that they are not getting a fair share in education, but that they are impeded in influencing the community around them. We must consider how we educate our young people—we educate them separately, and the people who teach them are also separated. Only 7% of young people are in integrated settings, but 79% of parents say that that would be their choice. We need to consider how we build on that for future generations.
Does the hon. Lady therefore welcome the motion passed in the Assembly yesterday? It was supported by all parties bar one, which I will not name. The motion supported getting rid of the exception in employment law allowing discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. The Assembly was united apart from one party.
I welcome that measure—it is long overdue. That is one way of opening up the teaching profession. Indeed, it means that students could be opened up to people from different backgrounds from their own, which is important.
Finally, there is the issue of shared spaces and shared housing. We need to change the language, away from people simply saying that people choose to live segregated lives, either to an acknowledgement that the threat that makes people choose to live that way is no longer there, and that we will set out to prove that that is the case; or to an acknowledgement that the threat is there and real, that separation is safer, and that we will tackle the forces that are posing a threat, whether they are paramilitaries or others. Shared spaces do not have to be neutral, but they do have to be managed. We have to put effort into ensuring that they are available for the people of Northern Ireland. It is not easy to achieve. My colleague David Ford has worked with groups on issues relating to interfaces, and reducing and opening barriers. We have to build confidence, and get statutory support in place.
Most of the matters I have highlighted are devolved, with the exception of dealing with the past and parades. However, there is a role for the British and Irish Governments as joint custodians of this process, participating in the wider discussion, facilitating and encouraging progress, and supporting the Executive in those areas where agreement can be found.
In recent months, Northern Ireland has found itself staring back into the abyss. We are faced with the choice of going back there again or doing the work now to ensure that that does not happen. We can choose to spend our time poking each other in the eye, or we can try to find a way to treat each other with dignity and respect. I am an optimist. It is not that I think that things are better than they are; I firmly believe that they can be better. That is the challenge to each of us, and we need to show the leadership to fulfil it.
I welcome the debate and thank the shadow Secretary of State for ensuring that it took place. Looking back 20 years, I am absolutely delighted by how my party’s policy on Northern Ireland has changed radically. When I was first elected, one was almost shouted down if one said anything that in any way vaguely implied that one might not want a united Ireland. Our policy used to be that we would persuade people that a united Ireland was their best future. That changed under the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and from then things improved. We got the Belfast agreement and, as everyone has said, things have changed so much in Northern Ireland that, as someone who was born and brought up there and still goes back regularly, I cannot help but see the differences and changes, which are mostly for the best.
I pay tribute to the Prime Minister. “Risk” is the wrong word to use, but he certainly took a big leap by agreeing to have the G8 in Northern Ireland. We do not host the G8 summit that often, so to hold it in a part of the United Kingdom where a lot of people across the world will be saying, “How on earth are we going to go to Northern Ireland?” was a fantastic thing for him to do. I think it will be a wonderful experience for all those people. It may not be such a wonderful experience for any of our colleagues going in and out of Belfast international airport on 16 and 17 June, as I think there will be a lot of security, but there is security at all G8 summits. I think we have to remind people that it will be no different from the security at any G8 anywhere in the world. I welcome the decision to hold the summit in Northern Ireland very much.
There is one area in particular that I shall mention towards the end of my speech. I will be as brief as possible, because I know that my colleagues from Northern Ireland want to speak. I will deal with only a couple of matters.
On the flags issue, it was not as if there were thousands and thousands of people on the streets of Belfast demanding that the flag be taken down from Belfast city hall. We know that this was a Sinn Fein agenda—it is what they have always wanted. The sad thing was that they were given that chance by people who perhaps thought that they were working in the interests of uniting people, and all it has done is divide people.
I am concerned about the Historic Enquiries Team, and hope that the Minister will say something about it. There are real issues that we need to explore: the length of time some of the things are taking and perhaps the way it is being run now. We need to have a detailed look at how that organisation is working. I hope that the Minister will come back to that.
I want to deal today with a crucial, but non-devolved, matter. Northern Ireland has a fantastic heritage of sport, sporting opportunities and sporting people famous all over the world. I need not remind anybody that we have the best golfers in the world or of people such as Mary Peters who have done extremely well at the Olympics over the years. These people have made Northern Ireland known to those involved in sport all over the world. We have some very good young people, yet we are faced with an issue that people do not like to talk about, because they think, “Oh, sport’s not political, so let’s not make it political.” But it is a real issue. In many sports, it is difficult for a young person from a particular community in Northern Ireland who wants to be part of a British team and of the UK ever to compete for a British team, unless they move to England, Wales or Scotland.
Boxing is one example. There are some boxing clubs—probably not many—where young boxers have no desire to box under the tricolour, but they have to because boxing is organised on an all-Ireland basis. The international boxing community recognises all-Ireland boxing, so if someone wants to box for a British team, they have to join a club in England, Scotland or Wales. The Belfast agreement was supposed to ensure parity and enable people to choose whether they felt more Irish or more British, yet in sport it is very much one way. Swimming is another example. Swimming clubs in Northern Ireland cannot affiliate to the Amateur Swimming Association, even though its general secretary would love to have them. They are not allowed to because they have to affiliate to the Irish swimming association, which does not want clubs affiliated to British swimming.
It is the same in tennis. A washing machine powder advert once ran a special offer giving people special help in tennis, but Northern Ireland was excluded because it was not seen as part of the British set-up. I will not repeat the story of the Olympics, but a number of colleagues are concerned that before the next Olympics we find a way of not referring to “Team GB”. It ignores Northern Ireland. There were people from Northern Ireland in the British team in several sports. I am not saying that because I consider Northern Ireland to be a part of the United Kingdom, everyone there must be in a British team, but the House has to ensure that the rights and opportunities of young people who feel British are recognised.
When I was sports Minister, I tried to do something about this matter, but it was even more difficult then because we did not have the agreements. Now we have them, however, there is no reason for the Minister, the Secretary of State or Northern Ireland politicians not to say, “This is wrong.” Every youngster must have the right to choose. Boxing, swimming and tennis clubs should be able to affiliate to British boxing, as well as to Irish boxing, if that is what they want. They might not all want to, but they must have that right. My constituents buy their lottery tickets hoping to help a British team in the Olympics. Some of that money quite rightly helps to fund the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, because it has a team in the Commonwealth games, but some of those youngsters also compete for Ireland against British teams. So we have this ridiculous situation where my constituents are paying for people to have extra training and support to help them win a gold medal instead of a British person.
I find it upsetting that when people who feel strongly in Northern Ireland raise this matter they are accused almost of being sectarian. It is not sectarian for someone to want to be able to compete for the country that is their nationality. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and if someone feels British and they live in Northern Ireland, they should be allowed to do that. I hope that the Minister will refer to that and not just ignore it, as many other Ministers have over the years.
Let me end by saying that I am delighted at the progress in Northern Ireland, but also adding my concern that, although it is easy to talk about the bad old days and the good days now, it does not take an awful lot to go back to some of the things that happened in the bad old days. We have seen some of those and hon. Members have outlined some of the terrible things that have happened. Devolution now applies to many areas, but we in this Parliament should remember that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, of which I am a member and which the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) chairs so well, needs to keep an eye on things in Northern Ireland. We cannot just say, “It’s all finished; it’s all better.” Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom. Members in this House need to remember that and not be fobbed off by the idea that everything in the garden is rosy over there, because it certainly is not.
Order. May I inform hon. Members that we have just under 50 minutes left for this debate? There are five Members wishing to catch my eye. If each speaks for nine minutes—nearly 10 minutes each—we should get everybody in comfortably, ready for the shadow Minister and the Minister to wind up.
Thank you very much for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Let me reiterate the thanks to the Opposition Front Bench spokesman and the Secretary of State for the way in which the motion was introduced, as well as the terms in which it was introduced. It was not a eulogy to the past or to one political philosophy. That is a mature way to approach things, because we are all good at trying to explain and justify why we are here and how we got to this point, when in fact our job as politicians and leaders in the community is to explain to people and give them hope, to co-ordinate and concentrate on where we are going to take them and to give them a forward-looking agenda. I am delighted that today’s debate has largely been about forward-looking policies and ideas and identity, which is important.
There is no doubt about it: Northern Ireland has changed. The legacy we have inherited has changed from when I grew up, when it was mainly a bloody and difficult politics to grow up in, to now, when it is mainly just a difficult politics to grow up and work in. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) is absolutely right: there are difficulties and we should not try to brush them under the carpet, but thankfully they are no longer bloody and difficult problems, but largely just difficult problems. That is an important point.
There have been positive developments. Let me turn briefly to the employment situation in Northern Ireland, which is largely pinned to that in the rest of the United Kingdom, so we are sitting at about 8.5% unemployment. That is slightly higher than the rest of the UK, but it is certainly not as high as in the Republic of Ireland, at almost 15%, or the eurozone in general, at 12%, so there is a clear benefit to continuing with the economic link, which shows that we are stronger together than apart. Jobs have been created in the last term of the Assembly; in fact, 10,244 have been created in the life of the Assembly. That is pretty incredible for Northern Ireland, given the disadvantages and problems, which we are well aware of. Indeed, £500 million of investment from overseas has been secured, and although Northern Ireland represents 2% of the UK population, 7% of all foreign direct investment comes to Northern Ireland. Those statistics on their own are encouraging in helping us to grow, develop and find a way forward.
We are a successful region, but there are obviously difficulties and challenges, and we should look at some of those. It is disappointing that one in four Sinn Fein members still believes that it is okay to murder a Protestant. That is the stark reality—that is what they said last week at their party conference when polled by the Belfast Telegraph—so leadership needs to be shown to bring that community to the point where it is never justifiable to murder for any cause. We need to make that absolutely clear.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil, when he said that a move towards a border poll would be some sort of “half-baked” gimmick. He was absolutely right, and I am glad that the Secretary of State pinned her colours to the mast today and said that she was not going to waste her time on such a poll. It is welcome to be able to clear that matter up and move on.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) was absolutely correct to identify the hard work that our Select Committee is doing on fuel laundering. I know that he has briefed the Secretary of State on that matter, and I urge her and her office seriously to pursue the issues that he has put before them. They are serious issues, and they demonstrate that there is something really rotten at the heart of things. They must be addressed eagerly and with energy, so that we can put those smugglers out of business once and for all. They are stealing money from the pockets of ordinary citizens in Northern Ireland.
I have already mentioned the issue of corporation tax, and my disappointment that the Government think that a technical matter—namely, Scotland as part of the Union—is preventing us from devolving that power. I really feel that the Government should have addressed this matter much faster. The National Crime Agency has also been mentioned, and it will be disappointing if we do not achieve a level playing field for every citizen of the United Kingdom in that regard. Each of them should be part and parcel of the area in which the NCA deals with the terrible issues such as slavery, prostitution and all the other rackets that go on. It is important that Northern Ireland should have the same standing in that regard.
I want to draw the House’s attention to a full frontal attack on £16 million-worth of salaries in Northern Ireland. I have waited some time for an opportunity to put this matter on the record, and the Government must address it. They are contemplating plain packaging for cigarettes, and they are now indicating that the proposal might be in the Queen’s Speech in a matter of weeks. We need to be absolutely clear about this. According to the response to a freedom of information request, which is in the House of Commons Library, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) was interviewed by Patrick Wintour of The Guardian on or about 28 February. Five days later, on 5 March, an article appeared in that newspaper indicating that the proposal was going to be in the Queen’s Speech. That drove 2.8% off the stock market value of the shares of a manufacturing company in the United Kingdom. The share price has not yet recovered, despite Ministers’ denials that they are going to introduce such a policy on 8 May.
The Government have a duty and a responsibility to defend employment in Northern Ireland. They might not like what is being manufactured, but that industry keeps 1,100 people in jobs in Northern Ireland and puts £60 million directly into the wage economy there. More importantly, it supports tens of thousands of other smaller companies including retail shops and other minor businesses in the locality. The Government have a serious responsibility to stop that full frontal attack on business in Northern Ireland and to address this matter once and for all. I hope that they will not put the proposal into the Queen’s Speech, and that instead they will have a serious look at defending our manufacturing industry in the tobacco sector. They will have a serious problem if they do not do so.
I ask the Minister to ensure that the freedom of information request in the Library is looked at, and to give consideration to an inquiry into whether anyone gained from the drop in share price that occurred in the five days between that interview taking place and the article appearing. Any such inquiry should look into who benefited from that share value drop, as this could be a very serious matter for all those involved in what I think was a deliberate attempt to undermine that business and to adjust share pricing, which has affected business in Northern Ireland.
I shall turn now to two events that summarise the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland. I had the sad duty, and honour, of accompanying the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) to the 30-year anniversary of the Ballykelly massacre. When I stood with him in that little church and helped to lay the wreath, I remembered how, as a 16-year-old, I had heard about that awful atrocity and witnessed the pictures of what had happened at the Droppin Well discotheque. It was awful, but it was the signature that appeared in most of our lives as teenagers growing up in Ulster during the ’70s and ’80s.
If we fast forward to last weekend, I spent the day with my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). We toured around our constituencies and visited the Coleraine football club and its liaison officer, Andy Alcorn, and the community liaison team. We looked at 600 young people from all across the region—from Magherafelt, Cookstown, Ballymoney, Ballymena, Coleraine, Bushmills and Ballycastle—who came into the heartland of Coleraine. There they were—whether it be the Magherafelt Celtic team or the Carniny football team from Ballymena—working together, playing soccer together and enjoying sport together, even though they were from a divided community. That signifies the hope of what our future might be, as our children grow up in a much more peaceful Ulster than my generation had the chance to do. We therefore have the opportunity to create and to develop the change—not just to hope it happens, but to create it and make sure that it does.
When I was growing up, Northern Ireland was in the news on an almost daily basis, with reports of the latest bombing or shooting. It felt like a world away, and most people of my generation watched from England with confusion and trepidation about what was happening in a place from which most of us could claim some ancestry.
My mother’s grandfather was from County Tyrone. Like many people from Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland he moved to Port Clarence to work as foreman at Bell’s Steel in Middlesbrough, criss-crossing the top of the Transporter bridge on the River Tees every morning and evening to save himself the cost of using the transporter below. It was in Middlesbrough that he met my grandmother. I thus feel a real sense of pride to speak in today’s debate as a Labour MP, as many of the leading lights of the labour and trade union movement came from the diverse and various communities from across the UK and Europe to find work in my area’s blast furnaces, iron stone pits and chemical factories.
The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) has already spoken about the importance we on these Benches place on our relationship with Northern Ireland, and about the attachment many of us feel towards it. Important work still needs to be done to drive the peace process forward, and there is a vital role for Westminster to play. Because the Government have a responsibility to work with the Executive and the Irish Government to keep things moving forward in Northern Ireland, we as MPs also have a part to play in that—and not just within the confines of this Chamber.
The recent heightening of tension in Northern Ireland made me ask what I was doing about what was happening. My assessment is that we should make links with Northern Ireland, and learn and share experiences and practices across a whole range of issues, from health to education, business and the environment. There are many similarities between my own Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland constituency and Northern Ireland, as both have rich rural and industrial conurbations and both have traditional shipbuilding heritages. Unfortunately, too, prior to the 2010 general election, both regions were targeted by the Prime Minister for the hardest public sector cuts.
Parts of Northern Ireland face similar challenges to those faced by my native region of the north-east. As other hon. Members have said, the Government’s economic policies are affecting the whole of the UK. That is why we have put forward a plan for jobs and growth for the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland. We are an interconnected and interdependent United Kingdom. Unemployment and lack of growth in Northern Ireland can only have damaged my region, and vice-versa. If we are to succeed, we must work together. The economy needs action now; there needs to be a plan B.
Our five-point plan for jobs and growth would get the economy moving. We would enable the Executive to bring forward long-term investment projects to get people back to work and to strengthen our economy for the future. After shedding 5,000 jobs in the last two years, Northern Ireland’s construction industry needs that help. We would give a one-year national insurance tax break to every small firm that takes on extra workers, helping to create jobs and grow the local businesses that make up over 90% of Northern Ireland’s private sector. We have urged the Government to reverse their damaging VAT rise for a temporary period to give immediate help to high streets, struggling families and pensioners in cities, towns and villages across Northern Ireland. Reducing VAT on home improvements, repairs and maintenance to 5% would help to create work for our trained men and women and stop them having to move away. We need to build skills through apprenticeships and training that will equip our young people for the future.
I agree with my hon. Friend that for the construction industry a cut to 5% in the rate of VAT is an ideal way of boosting investment in repairs and maintenance. However, it has been argued, in Northern Ireland as well as in my constituency, that there should be a reduction in VAT, at least temporary, to help the tourism and hospitality industry. I know that not much can happen overnight and that we cannot issue too long a list of demands, but does my hon. Friend agree that this is an important issue for Northern Ireland? It has certainly been raised by my constituents.
My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point. A number of Opposition Members have mentioned Northern Ireland’s tourism economy. Northern Ireland has a fantastic record of bringing in foreign direct investment, but it also has a fantastic Province to sell to tourists. That is something of which our nation—the United Kingdom—should take advantage, and a reduction in VAT would certainly help the tourism economy.
Because we know that young people will be the driving force behind further progress in Northern Ireland, Labour would levy a £2 billion tax in bank bonuses to fund a real jobs guarantee that could help 2,000 young people in Northern Ireland to go back to work. As in my constituency, young people are suffering the most as a result of the Government’s economic policies. They are being let down daily by the Government—let down by failed policy after failed policy. The young people I meet are ambitious for themselves and their communities, but they cannot realise those ambitions unless they are given a chance to learn skills, be trained and find jobs. As we heard from the shadow Secretary of State, no job, no hope and no future are no choices at all.
We each have a responsibility to go on working hard to keep Northern Ireland high on the agenda. The Government must play their part by helping to get its economy moving, and devising a real plan for jobs and growth.
I welcome the motion, because I think that the House should remind itself occasionally that the hard-won peace—and political—settlement in Northern Ireland remains very much work in progress, and that, from the perspective of London, there is much more work to be done and more help to be given. I also remind myself that the motion gently invites criticism of those who should be making more progress and doing better—perhaps those who lead the Northern Ireland Executive; perhaps the British Government. However, if I offer criticism in my short speech, it is intended to be of the constructive variety, and I hope that I strike, overall, a positive note.
Northern Ireland has come a long way, from the constant, daily violence of my childhood, to a relative peace and some measure of political stability. However, it is some 15 years since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, and while people would have expected little more than that relative peace and some measure of political stability in the first, say, five years, there has been growing frustration about the fact that it is taking for ever for us to see the full promised peace dividend. I am thinking particularly of the economic dividend from peace, namely investment and jobs. I recall my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) saying that we must move from a peace process to a prosperity process. Where is the prosperity process in which the British Government should be engaging?
Although regionally Northern Ireland has always been a net beneficiary of any Treasury settlement, we here are not the most culpable when it comes to the vital process of economic rebalancing. Although we may have been slow to identify new revenue streams and capital receipts in the north of Ireland, it was the UK Government who reneged on their promise of a £20 billion capital programme which would, in part, have allowed the north to catch up on years of under-investment in productive infrastructure. Perhaps the Minister of State will respond to that point when he winds up.
Again, it was the UK Government who, having held out the prospect, reneged on the question of devolving corporation tax-varying powers to the Northern Ireland Executive, despite the fact that all five Government parties were in favour of it and were prepared to pay for it. I am sure all Northern Ireland Members would welcome an update on that potential economic dividend. Despite some local criticism, our Executive Ministers have put a lot of effort into visiting major, current and emerging economic powers in order to win jobs and investment for Northern Ireland, and they have done so against the challenge of worldwide economic recession, so if I had to apportion responsibility for the Northern Ireland economy failing to meet the expectations of our people, I would not start by blaming the Northern Ireland Executive. However, I do believe significant economic progress is possible—but that must be accompanied by greater political progress.
The Secretary of State herself has linked further economic support, through an economic package and enterprise zones, to greater progress toward a shared future. Although I hesitate to see that as a necessary connection, I agree that we have not done enough in that area. The recent report from the Community Relations Council highlighted that one of the failures of the Northern Ireland Executive was in not doing enough on a policy for cohesion, sharing and integration. We are still a divided society, and we must move towards living together, whether through shared housing or shared neighbourhoods.
There is no alternative to a shared future. Our system of power sharing was not designed so that Unionist Ministers would cater for Unionist citizens and nationalist Ministers would look after nationalists. It was created so that we would share Government in the north of Ireland and act in the interests of everyone. That was the promise and potential of the good Friday agreement, and in many ways it has not been lived up to. While I have commended the Northern Ireland Executive, and in particular the First and Deputy First Ministers, on the genuine efforts they have made to attract investment, they have not distinguished themselves in other areas. On the flags issue, I would hope the DUP could provide the kind of leadership that it has not provided so far, and on the issue of parading, the Unionist forum is not the answer.
I have a question for the Minister—who represents a Government who are co-guarantor with the Irish Government of the Good Friday agreement—about north-south institutions. The Northern Ireland Executive, and in particular the Department of Finance and Personnel, which is led by the DUP, have again dragged their feet over a central project. The Narrow Water bridge project has enormous economic potential, and not only for my constituency where it will be situated. It will be a bridge between Warrenpoint in County Down and Cooley in County Louth, but it will create enormous investment, trade and tourism opportunities for all of the island of Ireland, and especially Northern Ireland. Let us grasp this opportunity and make everybody realise it presents a win-win opportunity.
Sinn Fein cannot have an à la carte approach to supporting the police. It needs to support the police even when they act against criminal suspects who happen to be republicans.
What we need from the First and Deputy First Ministers is real leadership around areas of division. We cannot work effectively at the heart of Government yet be attacking the very institutions—the PSNI, the Parades Commission—that have been set up to deal collectively, and fairly, with divisive issues.
My party above all still retains its belief in the promise and potential of the Good Friday agreement, and we remain committed to a shared future where all the parties do their very best to deliver for all the people of the north, in every area of Government. There is no doubt that devolution needs to work better for all the people of Northern Ireland, and I believe there is a will to do that, so let everybody—all the parties and both Governments—get on with it. I can say that my party is committed to meeting that challenge. I hope others are, too.
Madam Deputy Speaker, how nice it is to see you back in your position again after your time away. We look forward to seeing much more of you in the Chamber.
As a young man growing up during the troubles, I saw many sides to Northern Ireland. I saw evil people carrying out horrific atrocities. I saw fatherless children and childless parents who had seen loved ones so brutally taken from them. I saw fear in people’s faces and sorrow in their eyes. To sum it up, I too often saw despair. However, on the opposite side of that same coin, I saw the strength of the local communities. I saw the dedication and the sacrifice of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, of the Ulster Defence Regiment, of the British Army, in defending and upholding right. I saw the togetherness that the troubles often brought, and I saw a hope that we could and would survive this.
Now, many years later, we have come through the troubles, not only surviving but thriving. We are trying to move forward while never forgetting our past, and I feel that this is being achieved. Ulster is in a different place today than it has been in the past. Indeed, the recent Northern Ireland life and times survey shows that only 21% of nationalists show a desire to have a united Ireland. Indeed, in no single group do even a quarter of people want to be part of a united Ireland. It is abundantly clear that there is little desire to see the “green dream” become a reality, and that is good news.
When we take a look at the Irish economy and the fact that, despite our recession, we are in an infinitely preferable situation, it is no wonder that people are stating that the way forward is not to unite with the Republic but to stay within the Union in one way or another. We have listened to calls for border polls, and today the Secretary of State has replied very clearly in relation to the border poll: it is unnecessary, it is costly and it should not happen. That said, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done within the infrastructure, within the business sector, and within communities in Northern Ireland. Those are the three areas that I wish to focus on.
Back home, the Minister for Regional Development is well aware of the needs of my Strangford constituency in relation to roads and infrastructure. Clearly, we need infrastructure. There would not be a day or a week that passes when my staff and myself are not in touch with my local Department for Regional Development office to make complaints about the roads, whether about potholes, claims, or accidents caused by slippery roads. Clearly, my constituency is like others across the whole of Northern Ireland. Just to give a figure, we spend £2,800 per kilometre on road maintenance in Northern Ireland, whereas £12,000 per kilometre is spent in England, and in Wales £7,500. We need improvement in our roads infrastructure, which will attract investment and yield a return in the long run.
Belfast is slowly beginning to attract more outward investment, and it is my belief that we can build on that and bring it into my constituency. The links to the mainland from Belfast are tremendous, with regular flights, boats, and the links that mean anywhere in the Province can be reached within approximately two hours. That is significantly important when it comes to air travel, and to making us accessible for investment and for infrastructure. We have educated young people, eager to work, and those businesses that make the decision to come never regret it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment, and I wholeheartedly agree with him that it is something that must be put right. I understand that he and others are working to address that issue.
Our team at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment work hard to promote new business investment and also to support our home-grown businesses. In my constituency we have some of the foremost manufacturing in the world for aerospace, which has been mentioned, and we have room for more. We have John Huddleston Engineering, now Magellan, which has a great potential for Northern Ireland. There are extra jobs, and apprenticeships and opportunity, and that is good news.
Small businesses employ 65% of the private sector work force in Northern Ireland, compared with 62% in Wales, 48% in Scotland and 46% in England. In Northern Ireland small businesses account for a greater proportion of turnover than in the UK as a whole—60% of all private sector turnover in Northern Ireland, as against 46% in Wales, 40% in Scotland and 36% in England, which takes a poor fourth place. Those statistics show just how essential those businesses are to the economy, and those businesses are playing their part for economic recovery.
The question is: can we do more to make it happen? Are we doing enough to encourage businesses and apprenticeships? We have a high level of youth unemployment, although I have seen statistics today that show that there has been a small marginal fall throughout Northern Ireland, and that is good news. What are we doing to provide more jobs for them? We must encourage small businesses and make decisions to create growth in local economies and encourage business investment in our areas, creating employment and spending power.
Time is slipping by and I am conscious that one more Member wishes to speak, so I will make a final point on communities. We have come a long way, but this is not simply because of an agreement to power share, but because of hard work on the ground within the communities. We have some of the most deprived areas in the United Kingdom within Northern Ireland. We have many young people who are not working, and this breeds despondency in communities.
I recently visited the Ards campus. More than 300 students are involved in the steps to work programme. All ages are involved and all have job opportunities at the end of that: good news. There is also an initiative for young Protestant males who leave school without qualifications. Local colleges ensure that even after leaving school they can gain qualifications. The South Eastern Regional college, with campuses at Bangor and Ards, has 5,862 students on further education courses, 240 above target, and 2,275 in higher education, against the target of 1,289. There is a big push to see 16 to 24-year-olds with essential skills, further training, and ultimately a job. Good qualifications are important for their CV, and this year 3,000 students will complete their courses. Work is also done with the Prince’s Trust on apprenticeships.
Local community groups work hard within their communities and do great work with women, young people and men in their areas to provide new skills, new qualifications and learning, and this has to be respected and encouraged.
We must address the issue of the flying of the Union flag, which has spread to many communities outside the capital. We very much see the flag as an indication of our foundation and a mark of respect to all those who laid down their lives to protect the inherent freedom that comes through being a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. To remove this appeared to be an attack on something we hold dear—our Britishness. This of course provoked a reaction, but the hard work of local representatives and those on the ground stopped the escalation. The vast majority were on the streets peacefully, asking to be listened to in the only way they knew how to, saying that a shared future does not mean an erosion of the identity of the majority to pacify the minority, but respect for each other.
This is a process in Northern Ireland that is ongoing. There is no easy fix. It takes a lot of time and support, and I look to the Secretary of State and the Minister of State to see what can be done to lend support to all communities. This can be done in a practical manner by securing the funding for the work to continue in communities, and by coming to visit and listen to the people who struggle to feel of value and worth, and appreciating how far we have come and how many compromises we have made to make this happen.
Few countries have what Northern Ireland has to offer, including business opportunities and unrivalled beauty. The shadow Secretary of State visited my area and said that it was one of the nicest places he had ever been in, even after his own constituency. We have a people whose warmth and friendship belies the pain that they have come through. This must be respected, promoted and encouraged, and Government and Opposition must continue to work together to do even better.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has revealed that the shadow Secretary of State is consistent in his geographic flattery as he tours the various constituencies of Northern Ireland, and no doubt constituencies elsewhere as well. I join others in welcoming the debate and commending the terms of the motion and the way in which it has accommodated a range of contributions on such a number of issues.
Northern Ireland is in a much better place than it was. As Martin Luther King often said,
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability”.
It took real choices and commitments to bring about such change. It took people standing by some of those choices and commitments in helping to deliver a new beginning to politics and a new beginning to the British-Irish relationship––against the shrill opposition of many––and delivering on the new beginning to policing as well. One party said that it was not needed and another said that it would not happen. Those things had to be delivered so that we could move to the situation that we now have.
When we negotiated the Good Friday agreement, I made the point, in leading the referendum campaign for my party, that it would be a new covenant of honour between the two traditions in Ireland. It would recruit and respect the sense and source of legitimacy of both the Unionist and the nationalist traditions by requiring endorsement by a majority of people in Northern Ireland and by a majority of people in the island as a whole. We would have institutions that would earn and enjoy the allegiance of both traditions and would be legitimate in their eyes because they had respected and recruited their respective senses and sources of legitimacy. Many people doubted that at the time, but that is what we now have.
We now have a settled process, despite the turbulence and the issues we faced. During the first period of devolution, the First Minister and his Ministers were walking around with letters of resignation in their pockets, and we had other parties saying, “Jump out of the Executive now and we’ll jump out with you.” Of course there was instability, but it was not the result of inherent difficulties in the institutions themselves. The strains at that time were the result of difficulties outside the institutions relating to the various positions on decommissioning and reactions to policing changes and, especially, prisoner releases.
In particular, we had difficulties because the two Governments at the time, although guarantors of the agreement, decided that an inclusive process had given us an inclusive agreement but that the way to resolve difficulties of interpretation and implementation was to have an exclusive process focusing on Sinn Fein on the one hand and the Ulster Unionist party on the other. That brought us into a situation in which the institutions were not centre stage in relation to the peace process. The Governments acted as though the institutions were secondary to the peace process.
Thankfully, we are now in a situation in which even here we have a British Government saying clearly that devolution, where it has responsibility, needs to get its act together. I, for one, am glad that we do not have everyone running in and out of Downing street and going to their different party ATMs to try to get goodies and sweeties or whatever. We are being held to the level of our shared responsibility and we need to live up to it an awful lot more, as many Members have said.
I particularly welcome what the shadow Secretary of State said about there still being a need to address the past. I have quoted before the Russian proverb that says, “To dwell in the past is to lose an eye, but to forget the past is to lose both eyes.” We need to address the past properly. I point out to the shadow Secretary of State that if the previous Government had managed to get away with passing the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, which he tried whipping through in Committee and in this Chamber, we would be in no position to deal with the past. All sorts of people would have gone to the secret tribunal and got their indemnity certificates, so the only people who might have faced any question about the past would be the relatives of victims who dared speculate that somebody had received such an indemnity or about the crime for which they had received it, because the Bill provided that that was who would go to jail. It would be journalists reporting or speculating on that or victims saying it who would go to jail. It was a horrendous Bill. Thankfully, we created a situation in which Sinn Fein was forced to withdraw its support from what we dubbed the Hain-Adams Bill and it was subsequently dropped. That at least created the space in which we can address the past, and that is what we must do. We, as parties, must stop patronising victims on the one hand and ghettoising them on the other. We have to face up to the past fully, and not just for the victims, but for future generations.
Similarly, hon. Members have mentioned the whole question of flags, symbols and emblems. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) made a point that I have made in this Chamber before. As we arrive at 11 new councils, we must ensure that they are not faced with all sorts of difficulties about flags, emblems or even the very symbols of the councils themselves. Similarly, there will be issues about the naming of properties and sites in their areas and the renaming of older ones. Again, we need a common framework for dealing with those and setting mature and responsible standards, rather than being left in a situation of “what aboutery” in relation to things that go on in different council chambers.
In their own way, the two flags that are cherished by the two traditions in Northern Ireland are, at best, symbols of unity, yet they end up being used as visual aids for sectarianism in a deeply offensive way. Combating that requires political leadership. The Good Friday agreement committed us to providing that shared leadership, but the parties have never got around to delivering it. Similarly, the agreement committed us to a Bill of Rights. I believe that we must achieve progress on the Bill of Rights.
If we achieve a robust and articulate Bill of Rights, we might then see that parties need to rely less on the vetoes and negative features and protections built into the agreement. So long as people do not have the positive protection of a Bill of Rights to hold the Government and their different agencies and Departments to account, parties will rely on the agreement’s remaining negative provisions. I drafted some of them, including the designation paragraph, and I know why I did so—it was in the rules of the talks and had to be in the rules of the institutions that came out of those talks—but it was always our hope that some of those features would prove biodegradable as the environment changed and improved. I am glad that even Sinn Fein now seems to be talking about relaxing some of those provisions.
I am sure it is unnecessary to pay tribute to all Members who have spoken in an extraordinarily timely, appropriate and long overdue debate. It is a tradition of this House—it has grown over the years—for the wind-ups of Ministers and shadow Ministers to name-check every single speaker and credit them with the most extraordinary oratorical flourishes. I do not think that that is necessary and will simply concentrate on the finest and best speakers that we have heard this afternoon.
I will start, of course, with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), who, as ever, commanded the House and held us in the palm of his hand when he described the economic and cultural renaissance that exists not by coincidence, but by virtue of examples such as the Titanic quarter, which is an extraordinarily interesting place to visit.
The Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee ran through its greatest hits. I congratulate him on eschewing the false modesty to which others might have succumbed when he told us about his successes with regard to air passenger duty, corporation tax and fuel laundering. How right he was to avoid excessive modesty. The respect that many of us who have served on the Committee have for him probably grew today.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) made an extremely thoughtful speech, in which he spoke from a position of almost unrivalled authority. I have no doubt that his positive and forward-looking comments will have impressed themselves on all Members.
The hon. and gallant Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) made an unusual comment. It is not for me to criticise my betters, which I entirely accept he is, but to refer to hon. and right hon. Members dusting off their speeches and running through their old prejudices on occasions such as these was outrageous, even though one should not criticise an officer. However, we respect him for his contribution and I hope that he will accept that there was no dusting off of stump and set speeches. I think that everything we heard this afternoon was fresh, new and positive and very much in the best traditions of this House.
When the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) spoke about a transformed city, she did so from an unrivalled position of authority. If there is one person in this House who stands as an example of the resilience of the people of Northern Ireland and their refusal to bow to sectarian assault, it is her. She has immense courage and her words resonated throughout the Chamber. When she spoke of the agonies of segregated lives, she described not only a current problem, but a future direction of travel, which we will simply have to address at some stage.
I enjoy it when my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) speaks of sport. She could have mentioned her own remarkable achievements in that area. When I met her and the Sandy Row boxing club the other day, we did not discuss all-Ireland boxing, but we have now been educated on it. Sports groups and organisations in Northern Ireland are providing leadership. Two football teams from slightly different traditions in Belfast—Crusaders and Cliftonville—have for the past two or three years, very quietly and peacefully and without great fanfare, been getting on with cross-community working. I am not sure whether they have ever been given credit on the Floor of the House, but I would like to give credit to the Crus and to Cliftonville for their achievements in that area. I also congratulate the appropriate Members of Parliament for the support that they have given.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) demonstrated yet again, as if reminding was needed, what a superb constituency Member he is. Should there at any stage be the remotest threat to any business, any entrepreneur, any start-up, any lock-up garage, any car boot sale, anything within the environs of glorious, beauteous Ballymena, who will come riding forth on his white charger to protect them but the hon. Member for North Antrim? He referred to tobacco packaging. One would almost think there was a constituency interest there. Now that I come to think about it, I remember that Roy Beggs, when he was a Member of the House, and I visited that factory and I discovered, when the free samples were being given out afterwards, how extraordinarily capacious the poacher’s pocket of Roy Beggs’s ulster could be. That was the large coat that he used to wear. I do not think I have ever in my life seen so many packets of Silk Cut disappear into one garment. Yet again the hon. Member for North Antrim has proved that he is a first-class constituency representative.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop). He proved the old adage that if every single President of the United States is entirely Irish, particularly the present one, most Members of the House have some Irish ancestry. The interdependence and the links between our two nations, the shared ancestry, come across as a very important fact that we should never forget, because we are tied together in these islands by ties not just of history, commerce or convenience, but very often of blood, culture and shared history. It was salutary to hear his story of how people came to his constituency from Ireland and made a success, but he has never forgotten where he came from. We need to respect that.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) referred to a work in progress. As ever, she brings oratorical flushes and realism in one glorious melange of accuracy. Although her comments were slightly warning, she was optimistic but realistic. That is the reputation that she has. Were we to get into a competition with my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) about the beauty of various constituencies, South Down would be very high on my personal list. I mean to cause no offence to more than 99% of the House when I say that.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is, in my opinion, one of the most decent, God-fearing and good-hearted Members of the House. He also has an oratorical skill and the skill of language and poetry. If I could understand what he was saying most of the time, I am sure that I would never forget his words. I did have the advantage of a translator. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, who has spent much time in Strangford, gave me a running commentary.
The hon. Member for Strangford referred to the fear in people’s faces and the sorrow in their eyes. That is poetry, and it is poetry from the heart. It is not an artifice but a genuine poetic instinct and an urge. If I may say so, it is an honour for us to hear that. He also used an expression that we should remember. It is one of the most important things that has been said today. He said that in Northern Ireland people are not only surviving, but thriving. That is something we should certainly remember. He also talked about how people are managing to overcome the difficulties that they face, and he did so with immense courage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), as ever the Pericles of Derry, the man who somehow manages to produce these wondrous verbal confections at which the rest of us simply stand back in amazement, identified an extremely serious point when he spoke about instability. He said that the instability is not to do with the inherent difficulties with the institutions; it is to do with other factors. We need to concentrate on that. As ever, he came up with a glorious expression that we will never forget, when he said that we should not be patronising people, nor ghettoising people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling made one of the best speeches that I have heard on the Floor of this House. It was a speech that was positive and realistic. It contained one line that meant an enormous amount to me: devolution does not mean disengagement. When my hon. Friend made that point, he put down a marker. It was not a party political point, but reflected the attitude of the whole House. That line resonated in what the Secretary of State said and she echoed that emotion.
Anyone who is listening to this debate should be sure of one thing: there is a cool, calm and determined attitude in this House. We have an unbreakable determination that the benefits of the peace process will not be lost. We will not, under any circumstances, go back to the cold, chill days of carnage and slaughter. We will move forward and it will be difficult, but there is an absolute commitment on the part of every single Member of this House, for the sake not just of our united nation or Northern Ireland, but our common humanity, to see this through and not to be beaten. The one message that comes from this afternoon’s debate is that there is a unanimity of view, emotion, strength and determination throughout this Chamber and, dare I say it, this country. If this debate has underlined that one point, we have achieved a great deal this afternoon.
It is with some trepidation that I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound)—that is an unusual thing to call somebody from a party that is so diametrically opposed to my own—because he is such a great orator. Anybody who listened to his speech might not have understood the seriousness of the debate that we are having. However, the tone and humour that he brings to these debates bring us forward. It is a sign of where we are in the process that 18 Members have contributed in the past three hours, and that we have heard a speech that had so much humour and that got the whole House laughing on such a serious matter. I pay tribute to him for that and I look forward to working through the Bill that might come forward in the near future with him in Committee.
I am looking around to see how many Whips and business managers are in the Chamber, because I am about to upset them. This afternoon was the perfect time for this debate. The tone of the debate and the motion were spot on and allowed everybody to contribute. I put it on the record that I think it is wrong that there is not an annual debate on Northern Ireland. My Secretary of State is behind me on that. It should not be down to one party or another to bring it forward. Perhaps that could happen through agreement with the business managers.
The tone of the speech by the shadow Secretary of State was spot on. It is all too easy to make political points, but this is not that sort of debate.
I want to say from the outset that I will not take interventions because I am conscious of the business that is to come after this debate. As the shadow Minister said, it will not be possible to respond to every point that has been raised by the 18 Members who have spoken. However, as always, my officials are listening and when I do not answer a question fully enough or at all, we will write to hon. Members. If more information is needed, we will have a subsequent meeting to discuss those matters.
The Secretary of State reiterated the support of the Government and the House for Northern Ireland and the peace process. The peace process is not stationary or frozen, but is moving forward. Praise has rightly been given to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, including those who have retired with injuries, whom we must not forget, and those who have lost their lives serving this country. We must also remember the prison officers who have lost their lives over the years. One of the saddest things that I have ever attended was the funeral of David Black, with the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State.
Although members of the Army are not patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland, as I did many years ago and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) did in the ’90s, they are acting there in two ways. First, they are there for the purposes of normalisation and are based in their normal bases, free to go where they need to with their families and loved ones and to train unfettered. Also, the boys and girls of our armed forces are going out more and more regularly to devices that are designed to kill. There are also an awful lot of hoax devices, including sophisticated ones. Until they go there and touch them, and do the job that they have been trained for, they do not know that they are hoaxes. I therefore put on record our praise and admiration for our armed forces and their bravery. Many of them have served many tours in Afghanistan doing a similar job, and sadly, they see similar devices in Northern Ireland as in Afghanistan and Iraq. They dedicate their lives to their country and its people.
The members of our Security Service are the forgotten ones at times. We sometimes hear about them in the press, but it is a secret organisation. However, they are important to us in continuing to keep the peace and ensuring that the good guys continue to have good days. We have had some really good days recently when we have picked up devices and picked up people who want to kill. They need to know that they are highly likely to be arrested and go to prison for an awfully long time, and I am sure the House would reiterate that point with me.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) sold Northern Ireland brilliantly. One thing that it has is compassion—there is a welcoming spirit when people arrive. I have found it warm and welcoming, as I know the Secretary of State has. That is why tourism does so well there. It is also because of the open border—people want to visit Ireland, and then they have the facility to come up to Northern Ireland. When I was the Minister responsible for shipping, I was involved in many controversial matters, but also in the Titanic centre and in bringing HMS Caroline to Belfast, which is another great coup. The coups have been such that my wife is insisting that I take her to the Titanic exhibition the next time she is over. I think she also wants to do a bit of shopping in the large shopping mall that is close to it.
The Secretary of State and I are keen to open up Hillsborough castle not only for tourism but for the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland who want to come and see one of this country’s great houses. We are working on that as much as we possibly can.
As we have heard, one great thing that is happening this year is the G8 summit. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister showed bravery in confronting those who were sceptical—there were plenty of them—and saying that if normalisation is to work, it means that when the G8 comes to the United Kingdom it should come to Enniskillen. Having visited, I think it is one of the most beautiful areas of the United Kingdom. It is not quite as nice as the Chilterns, in my constituency, but it is very close. I would not sell myself completely on the matter as the hon. Member for Ealing North did, but I understand where he was coming from. The beauty of Northern Ireland is there for all of us to see.
The Derry/Londonderry City of Culture year is also hugely significant. I went the other day to the organisation’s head office, which is in an old barracks that I know well. Coming in the back way, it still looks like a barracks, but coming in round the other side I saw the transformation that had taken place. I walked across the Peace bridge and had lunch in a wonderful hotel just on the other side, and then walked on the wharves across Butcher’s Gate, which is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. I never thought I would be able to do that, whether I was a Minister or anybody else.
I am conscious that we have other business, so I will conclude. This has been a fantastic debate, and I have not had time to congratulate Mary Peters on the world fire and police games or to talk about boxing, which I know from experience probably has more politics involved in it than what goes on in the Chamber. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the significant and positive developments in Northern Ireland in recent years; acknowledges that challenges remain; and reaffirms its commitment to supporting peace, progress and prosperity in every community.