With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the cross-party negotiations in Belfast that came to a close during the early hours of new year’s eve, but first I would like to express my sorrow at the news that Paul Goggins has died. He was a truly excellent and effective Northern Ireland Minister and I have to say one of the kindest, most sincere and most popular Members of this House. He will be much missed, and I would like to take this opportunity to express my sympathy and support to his family as they deal with this shocking loss.
Last May, the First and Deputy First Ministers announced a working group consisting of representatives from each of the five parties in the Executive to look at three of the most divisive issues for Northern Ireland: flags, parading and the legacy of the past. The initiative formed a key element of wider proposals to tackle sectarianism set out in the Executive’s strategy document, “Together: Building a United Community”. In July, former US diplomat Richard Haass agreed to chair the group. He served as the US special envoy to Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2003. Along with his deputy, Professor Meghan O’Sullivan, Dr Haass began work in September with the aim of reaching agreement by the end of the year.
From the outset, the UK Government, along with the Irish Government and the US Administration, have strongly supported the Haass process. We welcomed the fact that it was the parties within Northern Ireland that had taken the initiative in seeking progress on these complex and difficult issues as part of the work that the Government had strongly pressed them to take forward on building a shared society and addressing sectarian division.
All three of the issues under consideration in the Haass group have the capacity sharply to divide opinion in Northern Ireland. Repeated attempts to deal with the past have produced little consensus up to now, while disputes over parading and flags have frequently led to serious public disorder. Some form of accommodation on those issues that commands cross-party support could therefore have significant benefits for political stability, public order and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland.
Although the UK Government were never formally a participant in the Haass process, we have been fully engaged with it from the start. I had a significant number of meetings with Dr Haass and my officials remained in frequent contact with his team. During the latter stages of the talks, I spoke regularly with Dr Haass, as I did with the leaders of Northern Ireland’s political parties and the Irish Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore. The Prime Minister also maintained a close interest in the process. We worked to encourage an agreement, even where that meant the parties making difficult decisions to try to move things forward.
The Haass process reached its final, intensive phase of negotiation in the days before Christmas and between Christmas and the new year, when a number of drafts were circulated, the final one being presented to the parties shortly after midnight on the morning of 31 December. It proposed a new set of arrangements for regulating parades and protests, with responsibility vested for the first time in devolved hands. On flags and emblems there was no immediate resolution, but the document advocated the establishment of a new commission to look at wider issues of identity, culture and tradition in Northern Ireland. On the past, Dr Haass proposed two new bodies: an historical investigations unit, in place of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team, to investigate troubles-related deaths; and an independent commission on information recovery.
It was of course disappointing that it did not prove possible to reach a comprehensive agreement within the timetable Dr Haass set, and it is clear that some of the parties have genuine concerns about aspects of what is in the final document, yet the clear message from the Prime Minister, from me and from the Irish Government is that this should not be seen as the end of the road.
The Haass process has seen much valuable work done and some real progress has been made. The discussions managed to achieve a considerable amount of common ground, which this Government believe can provide the basis for continuing discussions between the parties. From my many conversations with the parties, I have no doubt that there is a willingness to make progress on the issues that continue to be a focus for tension and division.
The momentum now needs to be maintained. I believe that Northern Ireland’s political leadership should lose no time in seeking a way forward that gets the parties back around the table to try to resolve their outstanding differences. For our part, the Government are continuing our dialogue with the parties and with the Irish Government to see how best we can help facilitate that. I firmly believe that there is still a chance to achieve a successful outcome from the work started by Dr Haass, and I have been speaking with party leaders to discuss the next steps.
At the same time, it is important that we do not lose sight of other important tasks for Northern Ireland, such as the need to continue to make progress on implementing the economic pact and boosting the economy, to take forward a range of measures to build a shared future and to move ahead with welfare reforms.
Finally, I would like to place on the record both the Prime Minister’s and my thanks to Dr Haass, Professor O’Sullivan and their team for the dedication they have brought to chairing the talks. I very much hope that, working together, we can now build on the valuable work that they have started.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for giving me advance sight of a copy. May I also thank her for her kind words about Paul Goggins? I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will understand that I want to begin with a few words about my colleague but, more importantly, good friend, Paul.
Paul served with distinction as a Minister in Northern Ireland. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said, he earned the respect of politicians, officials and community activists alike for his knowledge and empathy. He continued to take a close interest in all things Northern Ireland, and I know from my discussions with him that he had grown to love Northern Ireland.
But Paul was a lot more than an outstanding Minister. He was a man whose integrity, decency and values, rooted in a strong Christian faith, shone through in everything he did. He treated everyone with the same dignity and respect, whether a Prime Minister or a constituent living on one of the poorest council estates in Wythenshawe.
Paul and I had a special bond, for many years an affliction, of being avid Manchester City fans. We even set up the Westminster branch of the Manchester City supporters club together.
I will never forget Paul’s loyalty and friendship through the ups and downs of our shared political journey. He will be missed more than words can adequately express. Our thoughts and prayers are with Wyn and his children.
I pay tribute to Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan for their professionalism and commitment in striving for a positive way forward on some of the most challenging issues facing Northern Ireland. Flags, parades and dealing with the past are running sores that continue to inhibit progress towards the priority objective of building a shared and better future. They have to be tackled in a way that respects the insecurity and sensitivities of both traditions while balancing strong convictions with necessary compromises.
It would be wrong not to acknowledge that the failure of the Haass talks to reach a final agreement was both disappointing and potentially damaging to public confidence in Northern Ireland’s politicians and the political process. However, it is important that we retain a sense of perspective and that all parties in Northern Ireland refrain from name-calling or engaging in a blame game. Significant advances were made that can form the basis of future progress, as the Secretary of State said. That is particularly the case in relation to dealing with the past, where victims’ groups deserve tremendous credit for submissions that were coherent and compelling.
We want to see all parties back round the negotiating table as soon as possible with a shared commitment to working together on shared solutions. The UK and Irish Governments have a crucial role to play, not only as guarantors of the peace process but because of the legislative and financial implications that would flow from any agreement.
In that context, I have a number of questions for the Secretary of State. What dialogue is taking place between her and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the potential legislation that will be required to implement any agreement? What discussions has she had with her counterparts in the Irish Government about the financial implications of a new infrastructure to deal with the past? Can she explain why, at this sensitive time, she has weakened the capacity of the newly appointed Parades Commission by reducing the number of commissioners and the number of hours that each commissioner will be expected to work? While I acknowledge her contribution during the course of the Haass talks, does she understand that at this time of uncertainty the widespread perception of disengagement by the UK Government is causing concern across a wide spectrum of opinion in Northern Ireland, and that this needs to change? Finally, does she acknowledge the negative impact that some of the welfare reforms mentioned in her speech, particularly the pernicious bedroom tax, would have on people in Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland has made tremendous progress over the past 15 years. This has been possible only because of the determination of people to build a better future for themselves and their families—but it is also thanks to the vision and courage of Northern Ireland’s political leaders. There will be no turning back, but there can be no standing still. That is why we hope that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will convene an all-party working group as soon as possible and ensure that the progress that has been made can be consolidated in an agreement that attracts widespread public support but will also stand the test of time.
I echo and thank the shadow Secretary of State for his words on Paul Goggins. Paul’s example is one with which to counter the cynicism about MPs and about politicians, because he illustrated such a strong commitment to decency, integrity and public service. I also strongly echo the shadow Secretary of State’s point that Paul retained a genuine affection for Northern Ireland. He cared deeply about it, I am sure, when he was a Minister, and it was clear that he still did so in his discussions with me as Secretary of State some time after he had ceased to be a Minister. He had strong values, which I am sure were a great support to him in his work in this House and in Northern Ireland.
The shadow Secretary of State’s remarks illustrate that there is a lot of common ground between Front Benchers on a way forward. I agree that getting the parties together and back around the table in a working group to try to resolve the differences between them is the right way forward. That is what I have been urging the political parties to do. I also agree that an eventual solution needs to respect the sensitivities of the different traditions, but that it must also involve compromise on all sides.
It is important to recognise the progress made on the past, which is a particularly difficult issue for all of us, including, in some ways, the UK Government. I believe, like the shadow Secretary of State, that the voice of victims and survivors played a very positive role in taking things forward and that any eventual solution must place victims and survivors at its heart.
The shadow Secretary of State asked about the dialogue between me and the First and Deputy First Ministers. I have spoken to both of them in recent days to urge that a way forward be found and that the working group commence.
The legislation to implement what would be needed from the Haass proposals would come primarily through the Assembly and the Executive. The part this House would play would be, potentially, the devolution of parading. The mechanics of setting up the new bodies would be a matter for the Assembly and the Executive.
I have kept in close touch with Eamon Gilmore and the Irish Government—both before and after the talks broke up—on matters relating to the past and all the other issues under discussion in this process, including a discussion on finances. It is very clear that the UK Government face a significant deficit, which means that we have to take care with public spending. We expect the primary resource for the new mechanisms to be found from within the block grant to Northern Ireland, but we will, of course, always consider further applications for funding from the Northern Ireland Executive if they wish to press ahead with the measures. We will, however, be constrained in what we can offer by the need to tackle the deficit we inherited.
On reducing the number of commissioners, I strongly believe that we have a strong new Parades Commission that will do important work in the months to come. I am sure we all hope that a reformed system will take over in the devolved space if the agreements are eventually signed off by all the parties, but in the meantime I am sure the current Parades Commission will do an excellent job.
I wholly refute the perception of disengagement by the UK Government. The UK Government are strongly engaged with the Haass process and with Northern Ireland. We brought the G8 to Northern Ireland—one of the most successful events ever for Northern Ireland—and we followed it up with a strong investment conference. We signed an economic pact that sees us working more closely than ever with the devolved Government, including the commitment to meet the £18 billion of capital spending, and we are determined to press ahead with supporting the Executive in their moves on a shared future. We have responded when the Executive have asked us—for example, to devolve air passenger duty for long-haul flights. We stepped in to assist in the grave situation we inherited from Labour with the Presbyterian Mutual Society. We are continuing to work on the devolution of corporation tax. There is a whole range of ways in which this Government are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.
On welfare reform, we will continue our discussions with the Northern Ireland parties, but we believe that the compromises agreed with Minister McCausland are appropriate and will help adapt the welfare reform system to the particular needs of Northern Ireland.
As Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, may I join the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and others in expressing our deepest sympathies to the family of Paul Goggins, who has so shockingly passed away? He was a thoroughly decent and honourable man. When he was a Minister, I had the pleasure of shadowing him for about three years, and I have to tell the House that he was a very competent Minister. I say without any fear of contradiction that without his contribution I do not think we would be here today at this advanced stage of the Northern Ireland peace process, so highly do I value his work.
The Secretary of State is, of course, right in saying that it was the Northern Ireland parties that initiated the Haass process. I think Dr Haass was given a rather impossible task of finding quick solutions to problems that have existed for a long time. Is it not important now that those discussions between the parties in Northern Ireland and, furthermore, with community leaders in Northern Ireland continue, because such engagement is as important as any solutions that may come from those discussions?
I agree with my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee. Four months was a very tight timetable in which to reach agreement on issues that some would argue have been a problem in Northern Ireland for very many years—some would argue that some of the issues date back hundreds of years in terms of identity. It was always going to be a tough ask to meet that timetable. I agree that the solution now is to resume those discussions between the parties. Although it is clear that some of the parties have expressed concern about the final draft of the Haass proposals, none of them is walking away. They are all saying that the process should continue and they all seem to be prepared to engage in that dialogue. I urge them to do so.
May I associate myself with the remarks of the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State about Paul Goggins? As a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I can testify to the fact that Paul’s work was instrumental in bringing forward both the political and the peace process in Northern Ireland. Like many others in this House, I have lost a good friend.
Even though the Haass talks have temporarily ended, what is the Secretary of State’s plan to engage her civil servants and Irish civil servants in work on the specific issues that are still a matter of controversy, so that those officials will be able to give advice, wisdom and evidence to the working parties that will soon be set up?
My officials have worked with Irish Government officials throughout the process, just as I have kept up regular contacts at political levels. We also stand ready to provide advice, help and support to the Executive in taking these matters forward. The role of officials will obviously be crucial in coming up with a solution that is workable and practical and that can be implemented.
I also associate myself with the remarks of the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State about Paul Goggins. I did not know him very well, because I was elected only a few years ago, but the intrinsic fairness and kindness he showed me as the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman on Northern Ireland was tremendously helpful.
On the Haass report, I appreciate the Secretary of State’s statement. We all know that it was very challenging: the Haass commission had about 100 meetings, met 500 people and received 600 submissions. It went into the process very strongly, but we have reached a point where we are stuck on the two or three things that I suspect most Members knew we would be stuck on. Are there any plans to bring Dr Haass and his team back to unlock the logjam at an appropriate time?
In my conversations with Dr Haass I certainly floated the idea that he might come back in January, but that looks unlikely. He has professional commitments that would make it very difficult for him to re-engage in the same way, but I am sure he will continue to take a close interest in matters as they go forward. It is now important for the First and Deputy First Ministers to get the parties together around the table. They got very close to getting over the line in the run-up to the final discussions. Even the leader of the Ulster Unionist party was saying that perhaps 80% of what was on the table might be acceptable. Clearly, that party has serious concerns about the proposals, but it is indicating that it will continue to take part. Continuing this dialogue is the way forward.
The breadth and depth of the outpourings of grief and tributes to Paul Goggins are a testament to the integrity and standing of the gentleman. I am sure that other right hon. and hon. Members on these Benches will want to add their own personal tributes.
I join the Secretary of State in thanking Dr Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan. I also thank our own talks team, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), Jonathan Bell—a junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister—and Rev. Mervyn Gibson, who put in many hours over the holiday period, along with others in other parties, to try to make progress.
I welcome what the Secretary of State said in her statement. She will know that, under the terms of reference, it was for the parties themselves to come to an agreement on a set of recommendations. At the final plenary, four of the five parties could not support the final draft from Dr Haass in full, but it remains a necessity to try to make progress and for agreement to be reached among the parties in Northern Ireland. In our view, substantial progress has been made, although we are not there yet and there remain significant problems in certain areas. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) said, these issues have been around for many decades, if not centuries.
I also welcome what the Secretary of State said about the need to continue the process through talks between the parties. Will she do everything possible to ensure that those parties that have indicated an unwillingness to continue to talk to try to resolve these problems come back to the table and join the rest of us in trying to move Northern Ireland forward?
I certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is welcome that the Democratic Unionist party has signalled very strongly that although it has reservations about aspects of the Haass proposals, there is much that it can support and that it wants the process to continue. Of course, as the largest party in the Executive, it will be crucial in taking these matters forward.
Like the right hon. Gentleman, I want to thank not only Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan, but all the participants in the working group. At one stage, Dr Haass told me rather wearily that he had not appreciated that politicians in Northern Ireland were quite so nocturnal. There were certainly many all-night sittings, so the stamina of all those taking part is much appreciated.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement and for being continuously involved throughout the Haass process. Will she continue to work with the parties, because it is vital for Northern Ireland to get inward investment, and the sight of such public disorder on the issues of parades and flags is perhaps a significant deterrent?
Yes. It is clear that parades in particular, but also flags, have frequently played a part in triggering disgraceful scenes of rioting. If we can build more consensus on those issues, it will have tremendous benefits for the police, who have to deal with public order problems, as well as for inward investment, because few things put off inward investors more than political instability and street violence.
Will the Secretary of State tell us whether her law-abiding, decent constituents in Chipping Barnet would have accepted the final Haass document, given that it equates victims of terrorism with terrorists, diminishes the role of terrorism right throughout the troubles and seems to many people to have ended up as a very one-sided attempt to change the history of what really went on over the past 30 years?
I would hope that my constituents see the Haass proposals, as I do, as a workable basis for continuing discussions. It is obviously disappointing that the proposals are not yet in a state that means all five parties can sign up to them, but the reality is that getting any kind of solution to these issues will be very difficult.
The issues about the past, in particular, are very sensitive, not least because of anxieties about whether any process might end up with a disproportionate focus on state activity. We must, however, recognise the efforts made by Dr Haass and the participants in the working group to try to ensure that there are safeguards to prevent processes on the past ending up as one-sided, which is what the hon. Lady is concerned about.
The Haass discussions took place during a backdrop, in the run-up to Christmas, of increased efforts by dissidents to disrupt economic life in Northern Ireland. What recent discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Chief Constable about the ongoing and future threat from dissidents?
The attacks before Christmas by dissident republicans were disgraceful. It was particularly despicable that they were deliberately aimed at places where people were doing their Christmas shopping or were out for a festive drink, while the attack on commercial targets was deeply unpleasant. The message for these dissident republicans is that they will not succeed. These attacks are utterly pointless. They are disgraceful and they have been condemned almost universally across Northern Ireland. They have no political support and will achieve nothing. I am certain from my many conversations with the Chief Constable, the most recent of which was this morning, that the Police Service of Northern Ireland will leave no stone unturned in bringing to justice those responsible for the attacks before Christmas.
I, like others, want to express my deep regret and sympathy to Paul Goggins’s family. Paul exhibited many good qualities, if not every good quality, that one would expect to be found in a decent human being—integrity, humility and genuine friendship, as well as a deep sense of social justice, to name but a few. I first met him when he was a Northern Ireland Minister. He was outstanding because of his sheer decency and sheer human qualities, and he played a very positive role, as other hon. Members have already said. In time, after I entered the House, he became a firm friend, a trusted source of good advice and a confidant. I have been very moved because, right across the House today, we all miss Paul, and we will miss him even more in future, with his good counsel and his wise advice. To his colleagues, friends and family, I add my condolences and sympathy. It is a sad day for all of us.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s endorsement of the significant progress made in the Haass talks. I express my appreciation for her involvement and that of the Prime Minister in the later stages. The Secretary of State will recall that when the Haass process has been mentioned on previous occasions, I have urged a much greater involvement at an earlier stage by both the British and Irish Governments to ensure a positive outcome and to put in place a determined implementation and legislation programme. The process was not just about the talks themselves and whatever conclusion they came to; there needed to be a major follow-through process, and that is still required.
I believe that a lot has been achieved—the glass is not half full; it is three-quarters full—but may I now urge the Secretary of State to ensure that her Government engage even more intensively, hands on and proactively with the parties, the Irish Government and Richard Haass and his team, and take the lead to ensure the implementation of the considerable progress that has been made, the initiation of legislation where it is required and the resolution of the outstanding issues?
I certainly give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that I will continue to be very strongly involved with the parties, the Irish Government and Dr Haass, as well as with friends across the Atlantic who have taken a close interest in the process. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about my involvement and that of the Prime Minister.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of implementation. Even had there been full agreement on new year’s eve, there would still be a lot of work ahead to turn Dr Haass’s proposals into legislation and into new institutions operating on the ground. The UK Government, the Northern Ireland Office, officials and I are very keen to work on the practical implementation process. Not least because of our current responsibilities in relation to parading, we are very keen and eager to input into the process of implementing any agreement if, as I hope, it can be agreed between the parties.
Speaking as someone who has lost friends, and not just soldiers, in Northern Ireland—as have so many friends who represent Northern Ireland constituencies—how can my right hon. Friend balance the competing claims of the requirement to find out what happened to so many people who were cruelly murdered and the requirement to encourage people to come forward, perhaps with limited liability, so that we can find out what happened to the many people who have simply disappeared in Northern Ireland?
Clearly, those matters were at the heart of the work of the political parties and Dr Haass. My hon. Friend will be aware that the idea that was floated of a general amnesty was almost universally rejected. The current proposals include a limited immunity, whereby to encourage people to take part in the truth recovery process, their representations and statements would not be admissible in subsequent criminal proceedings. That is not to say that subsequent criminal proceedings could not go ahead on the basis of other evidence. It was clear from what was said by pretty much all the political parties and the public reaction to the statement of the Attorney-General that the option of prosecution must be kept alive. The proposals that are on the table do not seek to take that option away.
May I take this opportunity to express my sympathy to the colleagues, friends and family of Paul Goggins? He had an interest in Northern Ireland and a concern for its people that extended far beyond his tenure as Minister of State. That has been clear to me in my work in this House and, previously, as an Assembly Member. He was also a true gentleman. He displayed integrity, generosity and grace in his public service, but also in his private dealings. The House is much poorer for his passing.
As a participant in the talks process in Northern Ireland, I pay tribute to Dr Richard Haass, Professor Meghan O’Sullivan and their team. They have shown commitment and dedication to the process over the past six months and not just in its latter weeks, when it became incredibly intense. Richard Haass was clear throughout the process that the issue with finding a resolution was not the shortness of time, but the will to make the necessary compromises. Does the Secretary of State agree that any continuation of the process must remain focused on taking the difficult decisions, rather than avoiding them while creating an illusion of activity, if it is to deliver on the hopes that the public have invested in the Haass process?
I agree with the hon. Lady. To achieve success on any of the issues, particularly on the past, compromise is needed. Compromises have sometimes been difficult in the history of Northern Ireland. They will no doubt be difficult on these issues too, including for the UK Government. We are very clear that if the parties are prepared to make compromises to make progress, the UK Government will back them.
I associate myself with the remarks that have been made about the late Paul Goggins. He was a man of profound Christian belief and that guided him in his work. That is an example to us all. I add my condolences to his family.
The Haass talks have reached a stalemate. One of the drawbacks of setting a deadline is that once it has passed, unless agreement has been reached, the impetus can be lost. The advantage of these talks appears to be that they were chaired by an independent organisation that brought true independence and experience to the process. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there are no plans to introduce a further set of people as independent arbiters of the talks and that every effort will be made to bring back Dr Haass and his team at an appropriate moment when the parties have reflected on the work that has been done?
As I said, I am not sure that Dr Haass is in a position to come back and perform the role of chairman, but I hope that he will continue to engage. Introducing another independent chairman is an option for the First and Deputy First Ministers. I am not sure that it is needed at the moment, but it is well worth their consideration. I hope that we have not reached a stalemate. That is not how I would characterise the situation. There is still an opportunity for the political parties to grasp. They can do that by getting back around the table to continue the discussions.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker. It is so kind of you. With your permission, I would like to put on the record a personal tribute and a tribute on behalf of my constituents to Paul Goggins. The news of his sudden death was profoundly and deeply shocking not just to this House, his colleagues and most of all his family, but right across Northern Ireland. Paul Goggins had hefty and important responsibilities in the Northern Ireland Office. He was an exceptional Minister, particularly with regard to health and security. It will be widely regretted that he has died at the young age of 60—just 60. However, in those 60 years, he achieved an enormous amount. He has left a very positive legacy in Northern Ireland. As has been mentioned by other right hon. and hon. Members, he had a deep personal Christian faith. He lived that faith in the manner in which he treated everyone, irrespective of their political views or their faith.
I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that an early opportunity has been taken to report to this House on the Haass talks. I draw attention to the fact that the Secretary of State did not suggest in her statement that if the parties cannot agree among themselves, the British and Irish Governments will impose the Haass proposals on the parties and the people of Northern Ireland. That suggestion has been made in Northern Ireland. Will she take this opportunity to reject it clearly and frankly, because that would not be acceptable?
The hon. Lady is right that it would be very difficult to impose a solution from above. I agree with the calls on both Governments to continue to engage, encourage and facilitate. Ultimately, the best way to resolve these issues is through cross-party agreement within Northern Ireland. It was important to give this House the chance to debate the situation at the earliest opportunity so that we could send a strong message of support to Northern Ireland’s political leadership in their endeavours to reach an agreement on these issues, which have caused so much tension over so many years.
I share the hon. Lady’s sentiments on the shocking nature of the news about Paul Goggins. Even now, a few hours after learning the truth, it is very hard to believe that it has happened. This place will be all the poorer for his absence.
I would like to express my sadness at the passing of Paul Goggins. As a near neighbour, I learned a lot from him and his approach to politics. He was an ardent campaigner and obviously a great Minister, but he was also an outstanding and dedicated parliamentarian. I learned a lot from his approach to tackling the problems faced by victims of mesothelioma and from the way he helped Manchester airport to have a vibrant future. He was an outstanding parliamentarian and he will be missed locally.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for setting out clearly the progress that has been made in the Haass process. Does she agree that, although further progress is required, there must be no let up in the steps to improve economic regeneration in the region?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Rebalancing the economy in Northern Ireland by boosting the private sector is crucial. That is why we are pressing ahead with implementing our side of the economic pact. I will continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive in taking forward their obligations in the economic pact. I am delighted to say that the first tranche of the new capital borrowing powers that have been granted as a result of the pact will in due course support a new shared education campus in Lisanelly, which will give many more children the chance to share part of their education with kids from different community backgrounds and traditions.
As the Secretary of State will know, 90% of the deaths in Northern Ireland during the troubles were caused by paramilitary and terrorist organisations, and yet much of the focus is on what the state did. We cannot have a process that is disproportionate, that seeks to rewrite the history of the troubles and to sanitise terrorism, and that ignores the needs of the vast majority of innocent victims who were murdered by the terrorists.
I certainly agree that the processes on the past need to be balanced and must recognise the proper attributions of responsibility for the deaths during the troubles. I acknowledge that that is one of the most important things to get right. I am impressed by the degree of progress that has been made by the political parties. They have come a great deal closer to an agreement on the past than I ever expected. I hope that in due course we will reach an agreement and a conclusion on that matter.
On the proposals perhaps to establish a common flag for all communities representing Northern Ireland, will my right hon. Friend say a little more about how the commission on emblems will operate, and tell us whether there is any time scale for it to report?
The timing envisaged for the commission on identity and flags is around 18 months. I have always thought that there might be scope for the development of new shared emblems, and I hope that that will be considered seriously by the new commission, if it is set up. I genuinely think that there are merits in trying to have a broader conversation with civic society about moving forward on the issues of culture, identity and tradition that have proved so intractable up to now.
May I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, and associate myself with the remarks about the late Paul Goggins? He represented the epitome of compassion, humility, decency and integrity in this House, and during his time as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office and the Home Office.
On the Haass talks, I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and to Alex Attwood and Joe Byrne, who formed a sterling team at the talks on behalf of the SDLP. In view of the compelling need of victims and survivors, it is important that an implementation plan is put in process. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister of State take an active interest in ensuring that immediate discussions take place with the five parties to ensure that legislation, implementation and a resolution are found for those whether two people I talked to last week: one whose father was killed as a result of the activities of the military reaction force; and a widow whose husband was a policeman in Northern Ireland? Those people came from different perspectives, but they were suffering none the less owing to their tragic and sudden loss.
I reiterate the tributes paid to all participants in the working group, including the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson). Despite the fact that an agreement has not yet been reached, a remarkable amount of consensus has developed between the parties. We must build on that, and ensure that this is not a wasted opportunity and that the parties can get together again to resolve the remaining issues that divide them. On an implementation plan, as I have said already at the Dispatch Box, if agreement is forthcoming, of course the UK Government would be keen to provide support and advice on the practicalities of implementing the proposals across the three areas.
Given what has been said, it appears that no one is particularly surprised that the talks have not worked out, and that no one in particular is being blamed, as these issues are difficult and go back over a long period. Indeed, there is a good deal of satisfaction that this much progress has been made. It also appears that independent chairmanship worked. Although Dr Richard Haass is no longer available, it would be a shame to lose the momentum and the progress that has been made, so should not the Secretary of State encourage the Executive to appoint a new independent chairman and keep the process going while it is still warm so that we can cross that final finishing line?
As I have said, that issue is well worth considering, and this shows one of the values of this early opportunity to debate in the House where things stand with the Haass process. No doubt the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be given a read out of our proceedings, and I will certainly discuss with them the possibilities of appointing an independent chair, if they think that appropriate.
I join my right hon. Friends the Members for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), as well as other hon. Members, in their tributes to Paul Goggins. I knew him personally and found him to be someone who was set apart from many others. He was a person of great grace and tremendous integrity, and he was approachable by everyone, irrespective of which side of the House they were from.
I also thank the Secretary of State for bringing to the House her report on the Haass talks. She will be acutely aware of attempts by republicans to place the flag of the Irish Republic on an equal footing with our sovereign flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is one sovereign flag in Northern Ireland—the Union flag. As a professed Unionist, will the right hon. Lady assure me that the Government will never support any attempt to equate the sovereign flag with the flag of the Irish Republic, a neighbouring country?
As the sovereign flag of the United Kingdom, of course the Union flag must have special status in Northern Ireland. One of the challenges that Dr Haass encountered was that it seemed difficult to distinguish symbols of identity from symbols of sovereignty when it came to an expression of Irishness. It is important that consideration continues on those matters, and I wholeheartedly endorse the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that, of course, the Union flag will always have a special status as the national flag as long as Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. The Belfast agreement makes it clear that Northern Ireland will stay part of the United Kingdom unless and until its people vote otherwise.
In the absence of a long-term solution on parading, does the Secretary of State believe that the new Parades Commission has sufficient confidence from all sides in Northern Ireland to ensure that this year’s parading season does not end in the awful scenes that we saw last year? Does she think that any action is required on her part to ensure that such scenes do not happen again?
It is timely to remind the House of the vital importance of obeying Parades Commission determinations. We have had an extensive debate about reforming the adjudication system for parades, but unless and until an agreement on that is reached and implemented, the Parades Commission is the lawfully designated authority and its determinations must be obeyed.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for what I thought was an extraordinary, moving and wholly appropriate tribute to our colleague, Paul Goggins, at the beginning of this sitting. Paul was inspired by his Christian faith, and all hon. Members will hope that that same faith will be of comfort to his family at this time.
Does the Secretary of State believe that the difficulties she has charted ahead can be overcome by the downgrading of the Parades Commission’s work to just one day a week? Is she confident that that is an appropriate work load?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Parades Commission is not being downgraded and that it will be able to complete its work. We have a strong new team of parades commissioners, and I reiterate the importance of ensuring that their determinations are obeyed and that the rule of law is respected.
May I join in the tributes to Paul Goggins? He was an outstanding example of a humanitarian, as well as an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament. Paul and I worked closely a few years ago when he was a Northern Ireland Minister on the re-establishment of Magilligan prison in my constituency when there was a serious threat of its closure. He assured me at that stage that if a case was made, he would overrule some of the decisions that were going to be made in the higher echelons of the civil service. He was, as we all know, a man of his word, and he did that, and I pass on my sympathies to his family and his wife.
We all welcome the Secretary of State’s update to the House on progress regarding the Haass talks. Given the outstanding differences between the political parties to which she refers, does she agree it is essential that all parties get together as quickly as possible to try to hammer out those outstanding differences so that we get a widespread and comprehensive consensus, and can implement—voluntarily—a consensus across the divide that everyone in Northern Ireland will endorse?
Mr Speaker, may I thank you for speaking for each of us in your very articulate tribute to Paul Goggins’s ethic and the esteem that he earned in this House and beyond? Paul was not a “selfie” politician. His question was not who would get the credit for a measure or change, but who would get the benefit from it. Those of us in Northern Ireland who benefited from his work are right, on this special day, to give him credit for so much of the progress that he helped to build.
Will the Secretary of State affirm clearly that, in respect of the past, the Haass paper has more balance and much more value than the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) sadly tried to suggest? Will the Secretary of State also affirm that the whole Haass process, and the papers we now have, do have the makings of a worthy, worthwhile and workable advance if the parties agree to work on that, and that what we need to do at this stage is not just maintain working contact between the parties, but have a clear and cogent working compact so that we deal with not only those areas of difference but, more importantly, those areas on which we have reached an understanding that is better than we have ever had before?
I think that I can broadly agree with the hon. Gentleman on much of that. While I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), I think that what is now on the table is not as unbalanced as she fears—yes, I do think that it has the makings of a workable solution. These proposals can be the basis for further discussions. Clearly, they are not there yet, because five parties have not agreed, but they certainly form a workable basis for moving forward.
May I also add my comments about Paul Goggins? I met him in my previous life as a councillor on Ards borough council, when I found him to be compassionate and interested in the issues that we were bringing to his attention. When I had the privilege of being elected to this House, he was one of the first to shake my hand and welcome me. There was not a time when he would not come over and say a word of encouragement over your shoulder. I very much appreciate not just his contribution to me as an individual in this House, but the fact that he has left a legacy that we can all be proud to have been part of.
In light of the fact that terrorist organisations have no track record of telling the truth about their past activity, does the Secretary of State accept the genuine fears that any process that is designated to discover truth has the potential to be one-sided if the forces of law and order are subjected to full investigation and the terrorists remain unlikely to the tell the truth?
It will certainly be important to ensure that, when agreement is ultimately reached, the procedures on the past are as balanced as they can be. I well understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Vauxhall and others about the importance of ensuring that the process does not lead to attempts to rewrite history or focus exclusively on deaths when the state was involved, and I know that that is something on which the parties have been focused during the discussions. It is important for them to continue to work on that as they try to move forward from what is currently on the table to what I hope, in due course, will be a concluded agreement.
Given the extremely deeply rooted nature of the issues involved in talks about culture, tradition and identity, what role does the Secretary of State anticipate that there will be for schooling and education in helping to resolve some of those issues in the much longer term?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Involving young people in a debate about emblems and cultural identity could be very positive. I would have thought that it would be excellent if the commission engaged with children and young people to get their ideas on how to express identity in Northern Ireland in a way that is respectful to other views and communities.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and join all hon. Members in their tributes to Paul Goggins. In the journey of life, we all meet people who leave a lasting impression, and Paul Goggins certainly was one of those people. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.
Further to a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), does the Secretary of State accept that there can be no fudging of the distinction between those who were the terrorist perpetrators of violence in Northern Ireland over the past 40 years and those victims who were on the receiving end of their violent deeds, and that, to that end, elements of the Haass text were deeply unsatisfactory?
The UK Government have always made it clear that we would never find it acceptable for someone to draw equivalence between those who sought to undermine and destroy the rule of law through terrorism and those who sought to uphold it as members of the security forces. However, a lot of progress has been made on the proposals about the past—far more than most people expected. To make that progress and build up such a degree of consensus in just four months is encouraging. Some elements of what is in the Haass proposals are difficult, so I understand concerns about them, but this is an important opportunity to grasp and there is scope for compromise. The UK Government are prepared to be part of that compromise and we encourage the parties to continue to work on these matters.
May I also join in the tributes to Paul Goggins? Unlike many Ministers who, when they leave Northern Ireland, forget all about the place, Paul was always interested and wanted to hear what was going on, which I think was an indication of the genuine interest he had in the job he performed in Northern Ireland.
Given the wide range of opinions and the deeply held views that were discussed in the Haass talks, does not the Secretary of State agree that no deal was better than a deal that would have exacerbated the divisions in Northern Ireland? While, as politicians and as a society, we have to continue to work at the issues, does she not agree that the best way of undermining those who want to wreck Northern Ireland is to change our education system, get young people into jobs and have a robust economy, rather than implement quick-fix solutions that simply involve more quangos and legislation?
If any deal is to work, it is important that it commands a broad consensus. If we are to reach an agreement, some difficult decisions may be needed to get the compromises that are necessary. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that as well as working on the Haass issues, important though they are, it is crucial that efforts continue to be made to improve education in Northern Ireland, to boost the economy and to deal with all the other challenges with which the Northern Ireland Executive continue to grapple.
I, too, would like to be associated with the tributes that have echoed from both sides of the House to our dear friend Paul Goggins. When I was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, he was a particular and specialist help and a source of encouragement. When I had the honour of becoming a Member of this place in 2010, he continued to be not only a friend but, as I saw in the many Committees on which I served with him, an expert on matters of security. His expertise was a particular help. This House will be the poorer for his passing, but his Father’s house of many mansions will be the richer for his presence.
May I also say, Mr Speaker, that I think your tribute to him was touching? You described him as a man who was Labour to the core, but the least tribal of Members. I think that that captured the man and the moment, and we are richer for that.
Turning to the Haass talks, I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). You will appreciate, Mr Speaker, that I am known for speaking my mind and for calling a spade a shovel. I believe that my party was right to say no to the final text, and it will remain right to say no until it gets to a point when it is able to say yes to something that we can recommend to our community. I believe that we did the right thing, and we will continue to do the right thing when it comes to saying no at the right time and saying yes when it is appropriate to do so.
The Secretary of State said that it was disappointing that it had not proved possible to reach an agreement on an historical investigations unit to take the place of the HET. Why would she try to fund such a unit, with its panoply of lawyers and additional experts, when there is a shortfall of £60 million, starting in 2015, for the current arrangement, which is the cheaper option, and when there is an additional shortfall of £36 million for security? Will she commit now to finding the money to allow the police to function for the next five years, rather than pursuing this fanciful idea of an historical investigations unit?
It is important that the parties continue to work to find an agreed position on all these issues. I welcome the statement from the First Minister that he feels able to support substantial parts of the Haass proposals. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of costs, which would need to be resolved in the event of an agreement. As I have said, the UK Government would expect the Northern Ireland Executive to fund that primarily from within the considerable resources provided by the block grant. We will obviously consider any application for top-up funding, but given that we have to deal with a deficit of such gravity, it is difficult to commit to additional funds at this stage.
I cannot help but feel that, by now, Paul Goggins would have made a contribution on this statement with his usual good sense, grace and compassion that would have added wisdom to our proceedings. That is why his passing is a loss not just to his family, friends and comrades, but to the House.
It might never be possible to agree entirely about the past, but it should be possible to agree that the future of Northern Ireland will be served only by continued dialogue in the present. To that end, will the Secretary of State do all that she can with Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and the shadow Northern Ireland team to maintain the momentum achieved through the Haass process?
I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that I will do everything that I can to maintain the momentum, working with all the people he outlined.
I would like to close by once again thanking the two Members of the House who were direct participants in the Haass process: the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long).