Skip to main content


Volume 600: debated on Monday 12 October 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the political situation in Stormont.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) who has co-sponsored this debate, to all those who supported my efforts to secure this debate, and to the Backbench Business Committee that gave me this opportunity.

I know that the eyes of some hon. Members—especially those who are not here—may glaze over when they see that the debate is about Northern Ireland yet again, but I do not apologise for that. This is about my home, our home, my constituency and my family, and it is as important to me as I expect each hon. Member’s constituency is to them. Yes, I am afraid it is Northern Ireland to be debated.

Thank you. In my maiden speech three months ago, and in numerous interventions, I continue to make the point that the devolved Government of Stormont does not work. Indeed, the First Minister has publicly described it as “dysfunctional”, and it could not be more so. I raise this matter today because I am fiercely proud of my home country, of being Northern Irish, both British and Irish, and in fact a large part Scottish too. I long to see my country at peace with itself.

In my maiden speech I chose as one of my key points to call for a real push for the Union and for all parts of the United Kingdom to work together, not just for Northern Ireland but for all members of the Union. I firmly believe that the majority in Northern Ireland want a Union for everybody that lives up to the core values of fairness, tolerance and freedom of speech, and embraces the spirits of enterprise and hard work that make these islands great. I enjoyed hearing the Prime Minister make the very same points in his speech in Manchester last week.

Why do I raise this issue? It is because I want all hon. Members—Labour, Liberal, Conservative, SNP and each party present in the House—to take an interest and help to move Northern Ireland to the next level of normality. We want a peaceful society where diversity is respected and cherished, and a society that has a functioning Government and Opposition, protection for minorities, and dynamic and decisive politics without a criminal element linked to it in any way. I am extremely happy and proud that my party recently made the brave decision to move into opposition in an attempt to move Stormont forward.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene so early in his contribution, and I congratulate him and the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on securing this debate. The hon. Gentleman touched on the fact that the Ulster Unionist party’s withdrawal of its one Minister from the Executive in many ways precipitated the current crisis. For the benefit of my constituents and the people of Northern Ireland, will he outline when and under what circumstances the Ulster Unionists will take their place in the Executive again?

I thank the hon. Lady for that interjection, and we will wait to see what happens in the next elections before we decide whether we, and others, go back in. Yes, it was our party that precipitated things, but we only moved into opposition. The actions of others may have precipitated things further.

I know that all hon. Members will support the aims I have mentioned, and all will have done so in their constituencies throughout the United Kingdom. I wish to emphasise that we cannot simply devolve and forget, and all four countries will always benefit from working together in the Union. At Home Office questions today we saw a perfect example of that when I mentioned the lack of visible policing on the ground which allows paramilitaries to fill the void. The Minister just said, “Talk to Minister Ford.” That is not satisfactory.

We owe so many people so much for all they have done for Northern Ireland—the politicians, the armed services and people from many other walks of life—and we in Northern Ireland are for ever grateful. We all want to see better, and we all believe in better. In 1998, almost three quarters of a million citizens—more than 71% of those in Northern Ireland—supported the Belfast agreement. That was a ringing endorsement for putting the past behind us and looking with hope to a brighter future. They supported the vision that Northern Ireland could be a country of equals where religion, culture and heritage would not define opportunity or aspiration. I remember the excitement and genuine belief that this was a change that would offer future generations not only a better life but the chance to be themselves with no fear of intimidation or violence.

I came home in 1984, after serving my time in the Army. I remember the dark days when Belfast was somewhere many avoided, where armed soldiers and police patrolled the streets, where shopping bags were searched at checkpoints, and where the temptation to eat out or go to the cinema really did not exist. In 1998, the Belfast agreement lifted the lid. Enjoyment, excitement and the genie of a thriving economic future were released. The sheer buzz that I think the majority felt in Northern Ireland was quite wonderful: we had a hope of a better future and it was in our hands. It was not a perfect solution, but nevertheless a hope we have so nearly squandered. It was meant to create a system that would adapt and change over time, and become a form of government that lived up to the principles of that 1998 agreement. Instead, the very system put in place and supported by individuals during the referendum on both sides of the border has been changed, without the opportunity for those same individuals to voice concern or disagreement, into this dysfunctional quagmire.

The hon. Gentleman alludes to the dysfunctionality of the system of government we have, and he quoted others who have said likewise. Does he accept and agree that his party and other parties were the architects of the structures that he now describes as dysfunctional?

I thought that might be the question. We certainly were the architects, with others, who took great risks. I have already said it was an imperfect system. What came later was much more imperfect, but I do not want to change this into a petty debate.

Changes, such as the election of the First and Deputy First Ministers, have removed ownership of the process from the Assembly and forced every future election to be a purely sectarian headcount. Northern Ireland is now locked into mechanisms that actively stop any improvement happening. Today, we need the support and leadership of this House to help us to move forward. We have an election process for the First Minister that means we have, in reality, a co-equal First Minister and Deputy First Minister, neither of whom can do anything unless the other agrees it. It is an admirable idea, but one doomed to failure as so often neither First Minister—that is what they both are—can agree with each other. It is almost an endless game of brinkmanship, a game of chicken that sees Northern Ireland’s people suffer each time there is a disastrous crash because neither First Minister will give an inch. We have an Executive of all parties, with the intention that those parties will work together and decide together. Again, that is an admirable idea, but not when the two main parties squeeze and ignore the other parties at every turn, forcing matters through and then claiming that they were agreed under the excuse of collective responsibility. All this must change.

Part of the structure of the Good Friday agreement was the creation of a petition of concern. This was a legislative tool to safeguard the rights of minority groups by offering either the nationalist or Unionist community the ability to veto legislation that would infringe their rights. This tool, designed with the right intentions, has been misused in the most underhand of ways. Since the last Assembly election in 2011, it has been used no fewer than 34 times to block issues including: better recycling, allowing the National Crime Agency to work in Northern Ireland, the provision of services and support for military veterans, to prevent Ministers even being held to account, and, of course, to stop same-sex marriage. It is obvious that the petition of concern no longer protects minority groups, but in many instances has actively been used to undermine them. The intention was never to use this as a vehicle to reinforce such politics, but that is exactly what it does.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the dysfunctionality of the existing Assembly. Does he not accept that for the past eight years, while the Democratic Unionist party has been the largest party, the Assembly has not had to be suspended once? It has not collapsed on numerous occasions, which it did when his leader and the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party were in charge and First and Deputy First Ministers in the Assembly.

Thank you very much. I take those points very much on board. Rather than get buried in petty Northern Ireland politics, I will just point out that most of those collapses were actually caused by the hon. Gentleman’s party.

Those who were involved in the construction of the Good Friday agreement recognised that a simple or quick fix could never be an option. Indeed, those who were key in bringing this agreement to the people saw this as a first step towards a fair and equal society. They recognised that paramilitarism, segregated education, identity, culture and how to deal with victims and survivors were all complex issues that would need to be addressed many years beyond implementation of the 1998 framework. Sadly, in the 17 years since the signing of the agreement these issues have simply not been addressed.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Going back to the question of the suspension of the Assembly on four different occasions up to 2002, does he recall that on none of those occasions was a suspension brought about by a disagreement between the parties that held the First and Deputy First Ministerships? The suspensions were all caused by crises relating to the decommissioning issue, usually because of decisions and antics involving the British Government and certainly not involving the SDLP.

Thank you very much. I am in a very good sandwich here, or between two thorns on a rose. I very much take those points on board.

The squabbling that has ensued, due to the mistrust of politicians, has not only made these matters even more divisive but has allowed them to taint issues such as healthcare, social justice and the economy.

No, I am going to carry on for a moment.

Indeed, every avenue of life in Northern Ireland in which politics has a role to play fights against the stagnation that those politics have created. The current impasse, which is nothing more than the outworkings of this mismanagement and the mistrust of the major parties leading the Assembly, has placed Northern Ireland in a precarious position, not only economically, as political parties have failed to agree the implementation of welfare reform, but socially as the continued bickering and public statements of dislike and intolerance further drive a wedge between the sections of nationalist and Unionist communities.

I will later.

Our youngest generation, those who grew up in a post-1998 world, are among those who despair most at our inability to govern and our seeming fixation on creating obstacles instead of solutions. This was the message given to me loudly and clearly on the doorstep in the May elections. I am aware that, like those young people, many Members of this House are frustrated by the seeming inability of politicians at Stormont to see beyond narrow orange or green-tinted positions and genuinely attempt to make the brave and bold steps required to move our country forward. Nowhere is this more apparent than when we look at Stormont’s inability to implement policy or offer the leadership Northern Ireland deserves to rekindle that sense of hope, opportunity and aspiration I alluded to at the beginning.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. We are now 15 minutes into his speech and there is not a lot of what he has put to the House this evening that I disagree with, but the current impasse in Northern Ireland is nothing to do with bickering. It is nothing to do with people falling out. It is to do with blood shed on our streets and the murder of an individual. The hon. Gentleman needs to address that point. We will agree or disagree and fight in the Assembly about all the other minor points, but this House needs to hear about the growth of criminality in Northern Ireland, and what this House is going to do about challenging that criminality, that murder and that mayhem.

I entered the House with hope that the four corners of Britain could come together to form a solid table to hold the hopes and aspirations of everybody. My friends in Northern Ireland now enjoy 40,000 more people in employment than in 2010; unemployment has fallen for 27 months in succession; and employment is up to 67.8%. Surely these are things to hang on to—

I could not agree with the hon. Lady more. I entered the Chamber with hope, and I intend to keep fighting for exactly the same things as she—

It is better to start off negative and end up with hope. The hon. Lady gave some good examples, but they have happened despite, not because of, the Government in Northern Ireland.

I want to offer some examples of the failures. The social investment fund was created in 2011 with the intention of providing £80 million for key programmes and infrastructure projects that would directly benefit the most economically and socially challenged communities in Northern Ireland. By 30 March this year, £2 million was all that had been allocated; £78 million might now never be spent, with community groups and the most vulnerable being the ones who suffer. As of this June, only £3.5 million of £12 million available for childcare provision had been spent, which meant another £6.5 million had been lost. This is appalling, considering the number of working families struggling owing to the lack of accessible and affordable childcare in their area, especially given the present welfare debacle. Some 20% of the population are currently on health waiting lists, some of which reach beyond 18 months. It is a situation recognised as unacceptable by national experts.

On shared education, which most recognise as the holy grail in addressing so many of the issues, recent research found that almost half of Northern Ireland’s school children were being taught in schools where 95% or more of the pupils were of one religion. In the 2011-12 academic year, 180 schools had no Protestant pupils on their rolls, and another 111 taught no Catholic children. In October 2010, the First Minister said:

“I believe that future generations will scarcely believe that such division and separation was common for so long.”

He said that consideration should be given to tasking a body or commission to bring forward recommendations for a staged process of integration. Five years later, little if anything has changed. Under the Stormont House agreement, if it can be agreed, we are about to tie ourselves to spending £150 million on investigating the past, yet our own Justice Minister has said it will only really clear up one or two cases. Just think how much better that money could be spent elsewhere. Our victims and survivors need justice and support, but there has to be a better way.

There are many more examples, especially from the last four years of the dysfunctional Northern Ireland Assembly, but time prohibits me from listing every one.

I will keep going, otherwise the hon. Gentleman will not have time to speak later.

Commentators inside and outside politics recognise that the primary reason for this continued dysfunction is the creation of what we in Northern Ireland call the silo mentality of Ministers. When the coalition Government was agreed in 2010, neither coalition partner got exactly what it wanted out of government, but both parties were able to set personal and ideological positions aside to do what they deemed was right for the nation. Sadly, the opposite is now true at Stormont. Ministers are challenged by Executive colleagues not because of their policy approach, but because of party political or ideological differences. It is said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The Stormont Executive have proven that nowhere is that more true than in that political Cabinet.

If the UK Government were to design an education policy that ran contrary to their health policy or an inclusion policy that ran contrary to their housing policy, the electorate would quickly become fed up and ask for a new Government. That is unavailable to the people of Northern Ireland. Without a formal Opposition, there is no chance for change. Again, I congratulate my party as the one that made that brave step in creating the ’98 agreement and now, 17 years later, is doing the same for a strong Opposition. If those elected cannot be held to account, removed from Government or placed in a position where party comes second to the needs of those they represent, is it likely they will ever produce an effective Government?

Finally, I come to the elephant in the room of political debate in and about Northern Ireland: the continued undermining of political and social progress by criminals under the guise of terrorism—those who wish to rely on the violent struggles of our past at the expense of a political future. The House must recognise that the vast majority of acts carried out by these groups are not ideological but criminal and range from drug dealing to tobacco and fuel smuggling, punishment beatings, prostitution and racketeering. These ugly groups use Northern Ireland’s dark past and the Assembly’s inability to deal with these issues as cover to get away with the most heinous of crimes, including cold-blooded murder, with absolute impunity.

If any Member sitting on these Benches were considered to have a direct link with an active criminal or terrorist gang, I am sure that every other Member would not let that person remain here, occupying a seat in the greatest of all Parliaments. We all know that one party will not take its place in the House, meaning that we cannot include its Members in the debate or hope they will have the courage to speak and defend themselves in front of Members. I do not stand here to call out individuals, political parties or groups, although to make certain points I have had to do so; I stand here to highlight that without confidence in those we expect to govern with a fair hand, no citizen can truly support any elected body.

I have perhaps painted what some might see as a negative and rather depressing landscape for Northern Ireland, but I wish to emphasise that nothing could be further from the truth. The resilience of the people of Northern Ireland ensures that no matter how tough the challenge or how demanding the task, they rise above it and do what they have always done best: show hospitality to those who visit, continue to see the funny side of the challenges facing them and do what is best for them, their families and their neighbours. Many years ago while travelling, I met an Alaskan pipeline worker who had travelled around the world three times. When I asked him where the best place was, he replied, without knowing where I was from—surprising that!—“Northern Ireland”. He said that its inhabitants were the friendliest and loveliest of people. Above all, I wish to ensure that that remains the case.

I know you want me to finish, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am very nearly there.

Order. The hon. Gentleman was advised to take about 20 minutes, but he is now on 23 minutes. A lot of Members want to speak. If we do not get other Members in, we are going to kill the debate.

I was going to give the House some examples of some great Northern Irishmen and women, such as Mary Peters and Rory McIlroy, to show that we are a great country. To end, I wish to note that the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) is the happiest place in the UK. I thank Members for listening to me.

I advise Members that I am now introducing a five-minute limit that might have to go down to four, so please let us try and get through the debate as quickly as possible.

As a co-sponsor of this debate, I acknowledge the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) as the force behind persuading the Backbench Business Committee to allow us to have it, and he made a thoughtful speech tonight. He is a new but valuable member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, and I know that he will contribute to its work for some years.

When beginning a speech in this place, it is normal to say what a pleasure it is to take part in the debate, and while it is always a privilege to speak in this Chamber, it is rather regrettable that yet again we have to hold a debate on Northern Ireland because of problems in the Province, especially when, as the hon. Gentleman said, so much is right and working there.

Looking across at the Opposition Benches, I see representatives of three parties and an independent. Although I see some disagreement, I also see a determination in all of them to make things in Northern Ireland work. Sadly, however, problems seem to get in the way of the institutions functioning as well as they might.

As I see it—I have only five minutes—there are two problems to address tonight and in the next few weeks. The first is the crisis—it is a crisis—of government in Northern Ireland, where there are no longer properly functioning institutions. We could say that that resulted from the very bad murders that took place—indeed, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) pointed out, we cannot skate over them—followed by the Chief Constable’s assertion that one of the murders was carried out by the IRA, which was supposed to have disbanded a long time ago. We cannot ignore the fact that that is what brought about the immediate crisis.

It is also right to recognise—the hon. Member for South Antrim devoted much of his speech to this point—that the institutions were not functioning before that. The real and deeper reason for this problem, as far as I can see, is the design of those institutions. We know why they were put together all those years ago—to bring people together and to get them talking to each other instead of firing at each other—and there could be no better reason than that for designing those institutions. No one’s heart could have failed to leap at the sight of Dr Ian Paisley sitting with Martin McGuinness. That really gave us hope. Thinking back, we have to accept that the way in which the institutions were designed—with those who wanted to be elected to the Assembly having to designate themselves Unionists or nationalists or neither—could be said to have institutionalised the very sectarianism we were trying to get away from.

It is important to address the longer-term problems. I do not think we shall get solutions this side of next year’s elections in Northern Ireland, but from that point on we have to look at ways of ensuring an effective decision-making body. The institutions have brought people together, and we should not underestimate that magnificent achievement, which is a tribute to all those who worked so hard to bring it about and to the people of Northern Ireland and the great resilience they have shown.

It would be unfortunate, however, for anyone to suggest that revisiting the Belfast agreement in order to improve it is somehow an attempt to unravel it. That cannot be the case. An attempt to make sure that the institutions work better in the future would enhance the principles of the Belfast agreement, and we have to show courage in doing that. I would rather see proposals for improvement come from Northern Ireland—from the Assembly, but also from ordinary men and women in Northern Ireland rather than from this place. It is up to the people in Northern Ireland in those institutions to agree them and make them work.

We must address the immediate crisis. I would say to anyone on the Assembly in Northern Ireland who is listening to the debate that I led for the Conservative party many times when we were in opposition. Direct rule from a Committee Upstairs gave no one in Northern Ireland an opportunity to have their say on major parts of legislation. It is surely better to make the institutions work.

I am grateful for the two contributions so far, which I found thoughtful and interesting. I thank the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) for bringing this debate before us today, but all of us here and those who sit in Stormont are in danger of losing the confidence of the population of these islands through a seeming inability to find a resolution and get government back on its feet. If we take it that all parties are acting in good faith, we are left wondering why no one can find the common ground where all sides need to stand.

Very few politicians furth of Scotland have a good understanding of Scottish politics, so I am going to imagine that most politicians this side of the Irish sea will have a similar difficulty in fully understanding the politics of Northern Ireland. I hope that any shortcomings I have will be forgiven.

The continued impasse surpasses understanding. It surely should not be beyond the wit of politicians to find a way to work together even when they do not agree.

It is easy to understand that there is a different dynamic in Belfast, thanks to the unique governance arrangements and the need to ensure power sharing. It is easy, too, to understand that there are issues in politics in Northern Ireland that we do not have in our constituencies—or at least not to anything like the same extent—and that we do not have the same political history to contend with.

That said, I cannot bring myself to believe that any voter would cross a ballot paper in the hope that their elected representative would enter into a disagreement and find ways to continue it. I do not believe that either side of the great divide was carried to power on a wave of hope that they would create a situation that prevented anything from happening. If nothing else, the history of devolution in Northern Ireland has shown that the strongest wills on both sides of the fence can sit together and plan a common future, can work together and find accommodations to suit, and can make changes that do not require anyone’s capitulation, humiliating climbdown or pyrrhic victory.

I can well understand the position of wanting nothing to do with implementing the welfare cuts that are being forced on the poorest in our society, but I cannot understand the thinking that says that shutting down government is the better option. Equally, is not the continued existence or otherwise of the IRA or any other organisation that might appallingly choose violence as a route to social change a matter for the police and the security services rather than a point of argument for politicians? The people who elect us are entitled to expect better.

The Stormont House agreement, which appeared at first to be an excellent piece of collective decision-making has become something of a millstone and a point of contention, which is very unfortunate. The agreement could be the basis for forward movement if all sides were prepared to act in good faith and allow others the opportunity to do the same.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the work done by the Secretary of State in getting the agreement made. I acknowledge the work that she continues to do to try to get a resolution. It is not often that someone from my party will praise a Tory Minister and I will admit it sticks a bit in my craw, but the praise is very much deserved on this occasion and I hope her representative will pass it on to her. I hope he will also pass on my plea to her to keep the shadow of direct legislation, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), from this debate and to keep trying to get a resolution. Her deadline is, I think, at the end of this month—fewer than three weeks away. I hope she will be prepared to extend that deadline if it looks like there is a chance of striking a deal.

Getting Stormont back on its feet is the priority, but making sure that the parties working there come to an agreement on the basis of trust and respect might be the harder job. The political parties of Northern Ireland must, I believe, be prepared to accept that the other side of the argument might actually be acting in good faith and that although the Stormont House agreement might not be the best they could get, it is what is on the table just now. Posturing instead of acting could be damaging.

In the spirit of what the hon. Lady has said, if for whatever reason the financial settlement made it impossible for Stormont to continue functioning, would she support the Government legislating on welfare if it were the only option?

I do not feel that I am qualified to answer that, if the Minister will forgive me. I certainly feel that we must take every opportunity not to interfere in the discussions, and that any form of direct rule should not at present be looked at. I still feel that there is scope within the discussions to take that idea forward and ultimately to reach some agreement.

Posturing instead of acting could do damage that might take too many years to repair—and refusing to compromise could do the same. I believe that the people deserve no less than a compromise.

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate, and to follow the excellent speeches that have been made so far. I will not detain the House by repeating all the good words that have been spoken about how important it is for an enduring settlement to be achieved, although it is clearly very important for Northern Ireland to find a stable political process that can deliver for its people. I think we would quite like to avoid the annual round of crisis talks, and to get this matter sorted out for the long term.

On a more flippant note, I must say that I am surprised that we have got this far in the debate without anyone mentioning rugby or football, given the weekend’s events. May I be the first to congratulate the Northern Ireland football team on qualifying for the European championships? [Interruption.] I know that I should not have mentioned rugby—it is all going to go wrong—but that is an example of Ireland’s working together, and it could be a template for how we can move forward.

Let me now turn to a rather more parochial English activity. The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that the solution to the crisis cannot be yet more money from Westminster and the taxpayers, that the parties in Northern Ireland must find a solution within their existing budgets, and that there is no way of buying them out of the problem. I welcome that, because I think it must be the right solution. Every time we back down over here and offer more money, we create a problem, because in a few years’ time there will be another dispute that the parties cannot resolve between them, and they will think that there is some way in which we can fix it for them.

I urge the Government to be very cautious about taking the power to carry out welfare reform, because I think that that will mean a cop-out by politicians in Northern Ireland. They will not have had to find the money; they will not have had to fix their own budgets; they will not have had to choose their own welfare system. If we do this for them, they will be able to run around saying, “We never agreed to it. All those evil people in Westminster forced this terrible scheme on us. We would never have done anything like this.” They need to make a choice between welfare spending and other budget priorities, and that is what we should be saying to them.

We need the Minister to explain the Government’s time frame. How far can we go with no effective government of Northern Ireland without forcing an Assembly election? Can we really limp on until the end of March and the start of the election period? Is there any real prospect of a deal before the Irish and Northern Irish elections, or will there be another six months of to-ing and fro-ing and hokey-cokey, with Ministers being appointed and then resigning on the following day? Is there, realistically, a solution without the holding of elections in Northern Ireland a great deal sooner than next May?

I said that we should be very cautious about taking over the welfare reforms, but I think that there must come a point at which, if there can never be a deal in Northern Ireland, we cannot just sit back here and watch government fall apart and public spending descend into chaos. At some point we must say, reluctantly, that there really is no other way, although I think that that would be a rather poor outcome. I ask again, however, “What is the timetable?” Is the end of October, which we just heard mentioned, the hard deadline for a deal, or can we allow this to drift on until Christmas and try to deal with it in the new year?

At some stage we must be clear and say, “Here is the time frame: sort this out, or we shall have to do it for you, no matter how bad that is”, but we must also be clear about the fact that it is a last resort, and not the outcome that we want to see.

I think it worth highlighting, at the outset, the reasons for tonight’s debate, and why the political situation in Stormont is so fraught.

First—and I was glad to hear the Secretary of State say this explicitly in Manchester last week—there is the failure of the two nationalist parties to proceed with the agreement on welfare reform into which they entered at Stormont House in December last year. Secondly, there is the murder of Kevin McGuigan by people who, according to the Chief Constable, are current members of the IRA, an organisation which—again, according to the Chief Constable; not according to Unionists, not according to politicians, and not according to speculation —is still in existence.

Let me say something about the immediate aftermath of the Belfast agreement. We have heard a litany of faults in relation to Stormont, and I agree with much of it, but the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) ought to remind the House that all the issues that he spoke about in connection with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, Ministers in the Executive, all-party government and petitions of concern were issues that we opposed at the time, and that he and his party supported and implemented. Let me say, with the greatest respect, that he should not come here and try to revise history. It should also be remembered that when, after the Belfast agreement, the previous Assembly kept being suspended and there was dysfunctionality, people such as David Trimble were prepared to proceed regardless of what the IRA did. Even when there was no decommissioning, even when people were being murdered on our streets by the IRA, and even when police assessments were made and far more was going on, no action was taken.

As we have demonstrated, the DUP is not prepared to carry on with business as usual, or sweep such matters under the carpet. They cannot be swept under the carpet. Imagine if a political party in government here had some kind of militia or paramilitary organisation doing such things on the streets! It would not be tolerated for a minute, and no one else should tolerate it either. If we truly value democracy, we must make clear that only those who are committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic methods should be eligible for places in Government, and that if they are found to be not so committed, action must be taken.

Later this week, some of us will gather in the Undercroft to commemorate the loss of Ian Gow. The despicable contempt for democracy that robbed the House of Commons of that gallant Member lives on in the men who ordered his murder and the murder of so many others. Let me say directly to the Secretary of State and to Ministers that if they will not act to protect peace and the political institutions in Northern Ireland, we not only will but must act. However uncomfortable and however awkward that may be, we will not sit idly by and let terrorists return us to the dark days of the troubles. Others may want to run away, but we will not. We will stick to the task of making Stormont better, and making it work.

The current crisis is precisely what is expected when, time after time, one participant in government thinks that it can play by a different set of democratic rules from those applying to the rest of us. In so doing, it is causing severe damage to Stormont, and to the type of peaceful, stable future that the people of Northern Ireland want and deserve.

What must be done now to salvage Stormont from the place in which republican killers have left it? Twenty years into the process, the paramilitaries must go away. In the words of the Secretary of State, they must disband. Whatever emerges from the talks process this time must do the job that the Independent Monitoring Commission plainly did not do last time. The Government must be honest with us, and tell the public what is being achieved—or, just as important, what is not being achieved. A new mechanism for ridding us at last of the scourge of republican and so-called loyalist criminal gangs must be credible, independent, robust and transparent. There must be an end to the smuggling, the racketeering, the drug dealing and the fuel laundering. Criminality must be tackled. For some time we have suffered because republican “untouchables” have grown fat and still more corrupt. Let us now have some British Eliot Nesses. The Prevent strategy that the Home Secretary employs against home-grown Islamist terrorism is full of useful lessons for the Northern Ireland Office. It is time that we got results in dealing with paramilitaries and criminals.

I am following closely what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that the full implementation of the Stormont House agreement remains the best hope for the people of Northern Ireland and its institutions?

I entirely agree. Even before the resolution of the crisis became unavoidable because of the killing of Kevin McGuigan and what flowed from it, we had the deadlock and chaos that resulted from the failure to implement the Stormont House agreement, and the failure to get on with welfare reform that had been agreed by the SDLP and Sinn Féin, resulting in the fact that we could not have a proper, sustainable budget on which to base future plans for the Assembly of the people of Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend has referred to criminality. In the wake of the killing of a member of the Garda on the border this week, the Garda have said that there is a corridor of criminality along the border. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that needs to be addressed?

I totally agree, and I want to take this opportunity to express the sincerest condolences to the family of the Garda officer who was so despicably murdered as he went about doing his duty on behalf of people in the Irish Republic.

We must create some kind of high-profile taskforce to take on the terrorist godfathers and their criminal activity. We should give Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, MI5, the National Crime Agency, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Army and our friends in the Irish Republic security forces the tools they need to do the job. We need targets and we need results. The public have suffered at the hands of these crime lords for long enough.

I cannot, as I do not have any more time left to give way and other Members want to speak.

We must get on and implement the Stormont House agreement. We cannot go on wasting £10 million each and every month, as we have to do in Northern Ireland with, effectively, the Executive handing that over to the Treasury. It could pay for more than 2,100 people to get knee operations or more than 1,800 people to receive hip operations. Instead, we are handing that money back to the Treasury as a result of this nonsense that is going on in Northern Ireland at the moment.

The past is part of the talks process. Let me be very clear that, as far as the DUP is concerned, we do not want to visit the fantasy land the current Leader of the Opposition seems to dwell in. We are very clear that we will not let the past be rewritten. We know who the terrorists were and there will be neither amnesties nor excuses granted. Nothing that emerges from the talks process will lead to anything other than an honest accounting of the past, as far as we are concerned.

We want a settlement that endures in Northern Ireland: one that works, one that delivers for our people, one that sees us co-operate for the good of all. Sinn Féin faces the same choice it has always faced: either choose to become truly democratic politicians like the rest of us, or stay in a crime-tainted world. Sinn Féin cannot be allowed any longer to stand in the way of peace and progress.

I congratulate my hon. Friend—I want to call him that as I have known him for 30 years—the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who have been successful in securing this debate.

I am not going to pretend that I have a great family lineage in the Province; I do not, but I was brought up on the atrocities that took place during the troubles and dominated the news headlines during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. I was present at the Harrods bombing in 1983 and the Brighton bombing in 1984. Over the last five years, as a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I have gained a better understanding of the issues and challenges facing this great Province.

These challenges break into three separate parts: the need to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy, especially welfare reform; the threat from organised crime and terrorism; and confidence in the justice system and the legacy from the troubles.

The Northern Ireland economy is very similar to that of my constituency in Plymouth in that they are both dependent on the public sector. In my patch, over 32% of people work in the public sector. The proportion in Northern Ireland is similar, at over 30%. That issue must be dealt with.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Assembly having the opportunity to change the rates of corporation tax could encourage the private sector to help to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy?

I thoroughly agree, and that is why I hope that there will be some movement on that come 2017. I ask this question: why has Northern Ireland not got a city deal? We in Plymouth have not only ended up getting a city deal, but land has been released which the Navy no longer needs and we also have an enterprise zone. My hon. Friend is right that movement on corporation tax is the right thing to do.

I welcome the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on his return to the post of shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I hope he will continue the bipartisan approach he took the last time he held the post. I also hope he can help convince his leader and the shadow Chancellor to give up their support for IRA terrorists. Perhaps he might like to take them to meet the victims of the atrocities to hear at first hand of their real anguish at losing close relations, and maybe they can get an education.

I also pay tribute to Anthony Golden, who was killed earlier this week. It appears that his murderer was facing charges of membership of dissident republican groups and was out on bail. That proves that terrorism is not only an issue for Northern Ireland, as it also happens in the south and to us all here on the mainland, too. What discussions is my hon. Friend the Minister having with his opposite number in the Republic to tackle organised crime and terrorism?

I also want to speak a little about confidence in the justice system and the legacy issues. We should remember that my city of Plymouth, through its military, made major sacrifices and lost lives during the troubles. During my visits to Northern Ireland, I have met a number of victims’ families and they all want to see justice. So, last November, I supported the Government’s proposals on the European arrest warrant. The warrant gives powers to our police forces to apply for the arrest of potential criminals and for them to be returned to the UK to face justice. Will my hon. Friend the Minister explain why the PSNI has refused to apply for a European arrest warrant to bring Rita O’Hare back to the UK?

Rita O’Hare was put on trial in the 1970s for plotting to kill someone in the Army. She was given bail and subsequently escaped to the Republic to become Sinn Fein’s envoy to the United States. Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell were approached by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to bring her back to the UK. Despite their support, Blair was told by his Law Officers that he could do not that as she would be arrested. I have pressed the PSNI to apply for a European arrest warrant, but I have been told that there was not enough evidence to proceed. I am sorry, but if there was enough evidence to bring her to trial in the 1970s, why is there not enough now? This is ridiculous; she should be brought back to the UK to face trial.

Since the decision to give Northern Ireland what I would call home rule and to devolve responsibility, it appears that the Executive have had difficulty on occasions in taking responsibility for what goes on in Northern Ireland. Welfare reform, rebalancing the economy and dealing with legacy issues should be the responsibilities of the Executive and the Assembly. Ministers and the Northern Ireland Committee have roles to play, but the Northern Ireland Executive have to be more willing to take responsibility for devolved matters. I will continue to press for the Northern Ireland Committee to help by undertaking an audit of what has happened since the Good Friday agreement, to ensure that we can deliver on that and have better community consultation. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) is quite right to call for help from Whitehall when there is no alternative, but that should be the last port of call. In short, it is time for grown-up politics and for Northern Ireland to work as part of the Union.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and the Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), on securing the debate. This is my first speech as a Back Bencher for more than 14 years, so I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I am a little rusty. I never sought the role of shadow Secretary of State, but it turned out to be an immense privilege and left me with a deep affection for Northern Ireland. That affection is built on the straight talking and warmth encapsulated as “the craic” among so many people I met.

I feel a great sense of pride but also responsibility as a consequence of my party’s legacy in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Whatever the collective political failures of recent years, it is important to recognise that many of Northern Ireland’s leading politicians would hold their own intellectually and administratively at the highest levels in any democracy.

I want to take this opportunity to welcome back my friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker)—who is not in his place at the moment—as shadow Secretary of State. He is widely trusted and respected in Northern Ireland. I also want to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) for his tremendous support during my period in the role. I strongly support both of them in maintaining Labour’s support for a bipartisan approach. The principle of consent must apply to any change to Northern Ireland’s status within the UK. It is also important that my party should maintain equidistance between Northern Ireland’s mainstream parties.

So, what are the causes of the culture of crisis that has led to a cycle of despair and, in turn, to public disillusionment with the political system? There are a number of factors involved. Three successive years of elections have meant that politicians are reluctant to make compromises that might affect their core support. Sinn Féin’s overriding political priority has been to make progress in the south and to do nothing in the north to undermine its anti-cuts, anti-austerity position. Also, post-Ian Paisley senior, the Democratic Unionist party has been wary of being seen to work in an authentic partnership with Sinn Féin. An accommodation is not a partnership. Furthermore, too many people are still trapped in worklessness and inter-generational poverty and not seeing their lives getting better via a peace dividend.

What might the solutions be? The Stormont House and Stormont Castle agreements must form the basis of a way forward. There has to be a viable budget that takes account of agreement on some measures to mitigate the impact of welfare changes, including non- implementation of the pernicious bedroom tax, but Sinn Féin has to accept that such a viable budget is a reality facing all democratic Governments. This will require tough choices including changes to the welfare system. The only case I can see for further additional UK Government finance is a new fund to support the development of a new universal mental health service to tackle the inter-generational trauma unique to Northern Ireland. There also has to be a plan, with measurable timelines, to oversee the disbanding of all paramilitary structures. Such structures should be anathema in today’s Northern Ireland. The structures to deal with the past need to be agreed as soon as possible, and the Government should honour the Good Friday agreement commitment to a public inquiry into the Finucane murder. This can and should be time-limited, with a finite budget.

An incoming 2016 Executive, and, where appropriate, the UK Government, should commit to the implementation of the excellent Heenan-Anderson Commission recommendations to systematically tackle worklessness and inter-generational poverty. Alongside that, we need an economic plan that includes a city deal, and investment in skills and infrastructure, essential if the devolution of corporation tax is to make a real difference. It is right that there should be the establishment of an official recognised Opposition, preferably from 2016 onwards, but we also need a new movement binding together civil society, business, trades unions and the Church to apply pressure to politicians and to create the space and permission for politicians with courage and vision.

Seventeen years on from the end of the troubles Northern Ireland is a much better place, but it is still a society emerging from conflict, coping with the wounds of its past. In truth, that means it will take at least a generation, perhaps two, to move from a cold to a lukewarm peace and then to a normal society. What is needed more than ever is courageous political leadership, coupled with a shared and ambitious vision for prosperity and social justice.

I just want to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who worked extremely hard as the shadow Northern Ireland spokesman for a considerable time. I am curious to know whether his experience and expertise on Northern Ireland have at any stage been asked for by the current leader of his party. I think his plea tonight was almost for his party leader to read what he was saying about Northern Ireland. Has his party leader ever sought his view?

I thank the hon. Lady for her generous comments, and I thank all Northern Ireland politicians represented in this House for the tremendous support they gave me during the time I did that job. They do not get enough credit for the many constructive and positive things they do to try to move Northern Ireland forward. In direct answer to her question, I can say that in the context of the reshuffle I did have a brief conversation with the leader of my party about the challenges facing Northern Ireland. When I meet the leader of the Labour party in the next few weeks on a one-to-one basis I will certainly be raising a number of issues with him, one of which will be my analysis and my view of the appropriate position that my party needs to take if we are to continue to adopt, along with the Government, a constructive bipartisan approach to moving Northern Ireland forward. There are many things we could do that may undermine that, and we must resist the temptation to change our long-established positions, which have, despite some disagreements, on the whole earned the respect of all of Northern Ireland’s political parties. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North, the shadow Minister of State, has insisted that we stay true to those positions. On that note, I will bring my remarks to a conclusion.

It is an honour and a privilege to follow such a forceful and well-argued contribution from the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), and I think we would welcome his comments —we certainly would on this side of the Chamber. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) on securing this debate. While we are on the subject of congratulations, let us congratulate the Irish rugby football team on having achieved qualification where England could not, the Northern Ireland football team on qualifying for Euro 2016 and even the Republic on getting to the play-offs for Euro 2016.

I wish my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the best in conducting the negotiations, as I am sure the whole House does. They are at a delicate stage and they clearly need firm but fair guidance.

Let me discuss my personal history. I was at university in Liverpool in the 1970s, where I represented people from both sides of the sectarian divide. I visited Northern Ireland for the first time then and I was shocked by what I saw. I was there on business in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a very different sort of world to the one it is today. The opportunities that arise in Northern Ireland for business, for tourism and for the greater good of its people are legion. We should look at the positive things that have taken place. Personally, I have had to work with people whom I could not stand in various different political institutions. I take my hat off to those who have to work with people who were literally seeking to murder them only a few years ago. The positive aspect of the changes that have taken place needs to be emphasised. People must understand what can happen when things move forward.

I well remember the words of the late Jim Callaghan who said that it was an easy decision to send in troops to Northern Ireland, but a very difficult one to get them out. Clearly, what we do not want to do is go back to some form of direct rule, because it will then be much more difficult to get a settlement that will lead to proper—

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Just as a point of fact, in the spring of 1970, I remember Jim Callaghan telling my platoon that the British Army would be out of Northern Ireland by Christmas 1970.

I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his contribution. He makes the point quite clearly.

Dialogue clearly needs to take place between the different political parties in Northern Ireland, but paramilitary organisations and criminal gangs have no part in that dialogue. We must give full support to the police in ensuring that the rule of law and order is instituted in Northern Ireland.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) on their steadfast support for a proper process and a bipartisan approach. I am concerned that those paramilitaries may have been encouraged by other Members of the Opposition, and that they may be instituting some of their attitudes. I have school friends who were in the pubs in Birmingham when they were bombed. I was in the bar in the Grand Hotel in Brighton an hour before it was bombed. I have personal memories of what happened during those days. We must never go back to them, and we must ensure that we institute proper democratic solutions to the problems of Northern Ireland.

Time is running out. I ask the Minister, in his reply to this debate, to set out how we can ensure that the budget for Northern Ireland is delivered. I also ask him to set out very clearly the position on welfare. We cannot have a situation in which one part of the United Kingdom is carrying on with a huge deficit and not implementing the Budget. Equally, we need to ensure that we implement the Stormont House agreement as opposed to just allowing things to drift. Clearly, the legislation will take some time to pass through this House. We cannot have deadlines being set and then being ignored.

I accept that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is at a delicate stage in her discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland, but we cannot allow this impasse to continue unabated. Encouraging news emanates from those talks, but no agreement seems to be taking place. It is not right that some political parties that are not present in this Chamber can hold up the talks and express platitudes but not implement the agreement to which they have put their names. Clearly, we need to impose some deadlines and some structure and ensure that the people of Northern Ireland can benefit from the economic recovery that will flow from democracy, institutional investment and the rebalancing of the economy so that the private sector can improve the jobs and the life prospects of all the people of Northern Ireland.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), on getting the Backbench Business Committee to agree to this debate.

It will come as no surprise to most people in the Chamber who know me that I am going to talk about the role of trade unions. The trade unions in Northern Ireland are one of the very few voices that are genuinely non-partisan and cross-community. With no disrespect to those sitting on the Northern Ireland Benches to my left, we have seen tonight that there are clear disagreements within the political parties, but the trade unions in Northern Ireland have always played a role in representing people regardless of where they come from or what their beliefs are. These are the people who have to face the reality of Government policy on the ground, whether that is a public sector pay freeze, the cost of living squeeze or the impact of welfare benefit cuts, and I asked them for their view today. On behalf of Unison, the biggest trade union in Northern Ireland, I received the following response:

“trade union members in Northern Ireland fear a return to sectarian violence, a return of a gang law-enforcement culture and a breakdown of institutions and public safety.

The unions…are fighting to save the peace process and Good Friday Agreement, from a politically engineered dispute between the DUP and UUP in the run up to the 2016 elections.

DUP ministers are only…taking office for one hour a week then resigning, and taking full salary”

to progress their policy—[Interruption.] If Members want to intervene, I am happy to take an intervention.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will clarify that that is not the case. Indeed, the crisis came about not as the result of some kind of Ulster Unionist-DUP dispute but because of the IRA murder of a person on the streets of Belfast. That is what we should all be concerned about.

I take on board what the right hon. Gentleman says, but, as I said earlier, this is not what I am saying; it is what was said to me by those who represent people on the ground in Northern Ireland. That is their view, and the view of the people who try—

Well, what I said is the case.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which represents trade unions across the whole of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, took a motion to the European TUC, which represents 60 million workers across Europe. The ICTU is convinced that without the input of both Governments and the US Government there will be no movement forward in Northern Ireland. The congress supports fully the devolved Administration of Northern Ireland, wants the Government to be involved and to give a financial stimulus to ensure the continuation of the political institutions, and believes:

“The austerity measures being imposed on the citizens of Northern Ireland by the…Government are a major impediment to the resolution of the political impasse.”

Despite all the progress, Northern Ireland remains a society emerging from conflict:

“A society which has the lowest levels of any region in the UK of investment, educational attainment, and the highest levels of mental ill-health.”

The suicide rate is some 70% higher than in any other region, and poverty, the security spend and economic inactivity are all higher on any scale. The unions believe:

“The failure to achieve a political resolution in the talks…will result in the fall of the political institutions and direct the Westminster Government”,

which is the last thing that anybody over there wants. That will be unforgivable. The unions believe it will take us back to where we were and will

“result in the emergence from the shadows of the so called…para-military groups”.

While Members speak about the fact that one thing that led us to where we are now was what the police lead us to believe was the involvement of the IRA in the killing earlier this year, the unions believe that the failure to get the system up and running again will take us back to the full-blown impact of what we saw for far too many years.

I suggest that the people involved on behalf of the Government should sit down with the trade unions once in a while. I know that they are not very keen on talking to the trade unions on this side of the Irish Sea, but perhaps they might like to talk to the trade unions on the other side of it, which are genuinely committed to seeing the community go forward. Their track record shows that they have been there and shows their work with people on the ground, so the Government should ask for their view and work with them to try to make things go forward. At this moment, we are facing an impasse that will not be helped by having direct rule imposed in any shape or form.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) who introduced it was almost apologising that we should be discussing Northern Ireland again. I far prefer to have politicians sitting in the House of Commons talking about Northern Ireland than have young men out on the streets of Northern Ireland killing each other, so it is always a pleasure to be able to take part in such a debate.

Murder should have no place in politics. It is ballots, not bullets, that should decide issues in the 21st century in this United Kingdom. When a culture of violence develops, we see a Garda officer from the Republic to which the person in question claims to have loyalty shot dead while going about his duties. That is what happens when a culture of violence and criminality is allowed to fester under the excuse of a flag of political belief.

It is also important that we have budgetary and fiscal responsibility. It is safe to say that there are considerable differences between the Administrations in Westminster and Edinburgh on Scotland’s future fiscal direction, yet they have managed to agree a balanced budget, and will implement it regardless of the outcome of the Scottish Parliament elections next year. That sends a message to others.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in Scotland we are dealing with a one-party Government, while in Northern Ireland we are dealing with a five-party Government, some of whose members would make the leader of the Labour party look like a member of the Conservative party?

It is clear that in Northern Ireland everyone, not just some Members of the Assembly and the Government, needs to take responsibility for making balanced budget proposals and agreeing an effective Assembly Government based on sustainable finances, a point that I have made following the last two statements to the House by the Secretary of State. If people do not agree, it behoves them to state what they would agree to and then be prepared to discuss that to keep the whole system going. We could spend all night listing issues with how the Assembly works, and there are some who are not prepared to accept some of what was signed up to. It can be easy to get an agreement, but implementing it is usually slightly more difficult.

There is a golden opportunity to secure a peace process for the future. The speech that I was looking for in this debate was the one made by the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis). We could have a fascinating debate lasting until the early hours listing all the problems, but the hon. Gentleman set out solutions. I may not agree with every point that he made, but he was certainly right to say that there needs to be a positive approach to finding a solution to the current impasse. All parties, not just some, need to take responsibility.

I hope that the Government will continue to move down the path set out in the Belfast agreement, support the implementation of the Stormont House agreement and support Northern Ireland’s politicians in coming to a point where they are able to govern on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland and deliver many of the benefits that devolution should be bringing. That, for me, is the core of the matter. I want to see a time when Northern Ireland debates in this Chamber are about the economy, jobs and the future, rather than the past and the constitutional situation. I am as fervent a Unionist as the next person; I believe that the four nations are better together than they are apart. Clearly, there are those in the Chamber who disagree with that statement, but to be fair they show that one can pursue their argument through democratic debate, not by any other means. For me, the solidity of the Union lies in being able to discuss those issues rather than constantly coming back to the constitution.

I think that we all want to discuss the economy and the good things about Northern Ireland and the rest of the Union. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we cannot ignore criminality, paramilitary actions and murder on our streets?

No, we cannot have murder as part of our political debate. Paramilitary groups have no place in this country. They should disband and respect the fact that, as I said earlier, decisions nowadays will be taken by ballots, not bullets. We go about achieving that by making sure that we have an agreement that all parties can take forward. No devolved Assembly can live for very long without a sustainable financial position. Governments in Wales and Scotland agree balanced budgets despite huge political disagreements with Westminster. I hope that we can see some parties take a lesson from that in Northern Ireland to allow the Assembly and Executive to proceed with sustainable finances for the next few years.

It has been a pleasure to have the chance to contribute to the debate. I hope that we can go forward on the basis of a positive plan that allows us to put Northern Ireland’s future back exactly where it should be: in the hands of Northern Ireland’s people and their elected representatives, not coming back to a Committee Room in this House for direct rule.

It is good to follow the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), a lovely part of the world, and to hear his contribution. I am glad to have this opportunity to take part in the debate and to say a few words, but I will be brief as I know there are still a few Members who want to contribute. We have had so many debates in this Chamber about Northern Ireland, and I have listened with interest to the speeches tonight.

We have had a number of history lessons going back to the 1970s and 1980s, but the general public out there in Northern Ireland want to know where we go from here. Make no mistake—the Assembly is in a crisis. As we have this debate here tonight and as we discuss other issues tomorrow and on Wednesday, the discussions will be ongoing in the Assembly to try to find a resolution to the issues and concerns that there are in the structures of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Any deal or understanding that we come to at the end of these talks, and any agreement, if there is one, needs to be comprehensive. It needs to deal with the issues that were agreed in the Stormont House agreement.

Unfortunately, a number of parties reneged on that. Although we know the reputation of Sinn Féin and we know its links to the provos, as history has shown us, I am extremely disappointed in the stance of the SDLP. On SDLP Members’ understanding of economics, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is a former Finance Minister so he understands finance, or he should understand finance. Every Member of this House will understand that if there is no money in a business, cash flow stops. It is all over. That is exactly the problem in Stormont.

Yes, we have had a murder on the streets of Belfast, and that is important. Blood on the streets of Belfast—we cannot ignore that; it must be dealt with. The paramilitaries must be dealt with, whether they be republicans or loyalists. They need to go away, in the words of the Secretary of State. But without money one cannot run a business. That is the problem of the Assembly. Welfare reform needs to be agreed, and quickly.

The point was made earlier that we are handing back tens of millions of pounds to the Treasury. Where is the business sense in that? Why? Because Sinn Féin and the SDLP, but more so Sinn Féin on this issue, are facing elections in the Republic of Ireland and they believe that it will have a detrimental impact on them if they agree to welfare reform. Welfare reform has to be implemented. The Government and the Prime Minister only recently said that there was no more money. Do we like that? No, but we have to go with it because there is no finance. Stormont needs to be resolved. We are a devolutionist party, and I believe that Northern Ireland is ruled better from Stormont, but there must be trust. At present the trust is not there. It needs to be re-established.

In following the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), I will respond to his challenge to my party, but I do not want to respond only to the issue of welfare reform and the challenges in the devolved budget resulting from the Treasury’s budget bullying tactics. The Treasury is imposing a fine on the block grant that is given to the Northern Ireland Executive under the Barnett formula. It adopted that tactic because it thought that creating budget stress for the Assembly would force through welfare reform, but that budget stress became a budget crisis, and that in turn is feeding a political crisis.

The Treasury needs to take a different course. I ask hon. Members to contemplate what would happen if the British Government decided to introduce a provision in the Scotland Bill that would require any disagreement between Ministers in London and Edinburgh on welfare issues in Scotland to be resolved according to the terms they are using in Northern Ireland. How would those on the Treasury Bench react if some of us proposed a new clause that would specifically forbid the Treasury ever doing in Scotland what it is now doing in Northern Ireland: using budget interference to impose a different view of welfare reform?

Although the scheme for devolution set out in the Scotland Bill is different from the notional legislative devolution that Northern Ireland has, the fact is that there is a scheme for devolution there, and it requires and presumes, by the nature of the legislation, agreement between Ministers, but there is no provision for when there is disagreement. It certainly would not work if Scotland were to be treated in the way Northern Ireland has been treated. Therefore, if the Treasury would not treat Scotland that way in relation to the future of devolution and welfare, it should not treat Northern Ireland that way now.

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that using the word “fine” misrepresents the situation? The money that is being paid back to the Treasury is the difference between what is being spent and would have been spent had the welfare changes introduced across the rest of the United Kingdom been introduced in Northern Ireland. The fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly has made a choice means that there is a difference in the amount of money spent, and that is why the money has to be paid back.

Whether we call them fines or penalties, as the hon. Gentleman and his party have done previously, or savings forgone, which is the language the Treasury uses, they are the same thing and the result is the same: serious pressure on our budget. There are other pressures on our budget as a result of some of the choices that the Executive have made. They are not choices that I would have made when I was Finance Minister—given that my period in that office has been brought up—but they are not choices that I had to make either.

Let me return to the issues that now confront all the parties in the Stormont House talks. Serious attention is rightly being paid to the question of paramilitarism in its various manifestations and manipulations. We are glad that that issue has come to the fore, although we regret how it has come to the fore. In the scoping for the original Stormont House negotiations late last year we said that we wanted paramilitarism, organised crime and criminality on the agenda. Unfortunately we did not get support from others, because they did not seem to believe that it was a relevant issue. It clearly is. Many hon. Members have touched on some of the features of criminality that clearly derive from our troubled experience. Whether people want to pretend that some of these people are simply privateers, having been privatised from some other paramilitary group, or something else, the fact is that collectively we have to confront what that means. We have done that before in previous debates on a cross-party basis—for example, when looking at organised crime in the border areas and elsewhere.

We, as parties, must also ensure that we are not divided on the issue of paramilitarism by taking a differential approach to it depending on what side of the community it appears to come from. We should avoid making different demands on and criticisms of the police according to their response or non-response to one feature of paramilitarism, as opposed to another, because that would send out a signal that we are still divided and that the paramilitaries are somehow attached to and serve particular sides. Nor should we create difficulties for the police. Parties should be robust in using the accountability mechanisms for policing to challenge and engage policing at all levels, but we should not catch the police in the middle of our party political differences.

That is why at Stormont House my party is advocating a whole-community approach to dealing with paramilitarism. If we are to create a whole community in Northern Ireland, we need to overcome historical sectarian divisions and all the convulsive ruptures that aspects of our culture and traditions have sometimes brought about, such as parades. At Stormont House—this is often forgotten—we agreed new financial commitments on shared and integrated education, but we need to go further. We need to invest in shared housing to build more intentionally shared communities close to the new shared education estate so that one will reinforce and support the other in changing society.

When people voted for the Good Friday agreement—I am probably the only person in the Chamber who was there negotiating it, and I take my share of whatever people want to say in the way of blame or criticism—we were proved absolutely right in the way we had done it. It was about creating transformational politics in Northern Ireland, and not, at best, episodes of transactional politics where people appear to share power now and then, and turn their backs on each other and let the community down at other times. We need to use these Stormont House negotiations not just to make good the better promises of Stormont House but to go back to the original promises of the agreement.

The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) said that we should be more positive about some aspects. How much more positive can we get than Northern Ireland qualifying for the European football championships for the first time at the weekend, and the Ireland rugby team topping their group in the rugby world cup, although there were quite a number of Ulstermen playing for Ireland as well? Let us be fair—there are some positives. Perhaps we should just let the sportspeople of Northern Ireland run Northern Ireland. Would we have a better place? I do not know. It is difficult to replicate the euphoria in the sporting world in Northern Ireland in politics at the moment, but that is what we need to try to do. However, we cannot ignore what is happening on our streets—the murder and the criminality. All those aspects must be dealt with.

It is incumbent on us to go back to where we were in December. Not every party agreed with the Stormont House proposals. In fact, Sinn Féin was the only party that totally signed up to them. Let me quote what some of its members said at its party conference in March this year. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin leader, said of the deal they got at Stormont House in December:

“Welfare reform is a fresh start that we need to seize with both hands”.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness referred to a

“remarkable achievement which has the potential to give the executive a fresh start…Against all the odds we have forged a way forward, we have achieved a deal in the interests of the people…We are immensely proud of the achievement”.

Only a couple of days later, they reneged on that deal. Why? Is it because they want to demonstrate that Northern Ireland is unworkable? There is a real challenge for us to prove that it is workable. We need to bond together—perhaps without Sinn Féin, but we need to do it. We need to bond together with unions, with representatives of the community, with public representatives, and, dare I say it, with sportspeople to make sure that Northern Ireland is a workable country and that Sinn Féin and those who are determined to drive that away cannot be successful.

First, may I say that the negativity in some of tonight’s speeches is not representative of the record of the Northern Ireland Assembly? Indeed, parties as diverse as Sinn Féin and ourselves have been forced to work together, yet have brought forward a programme for Government that, as was pointed out in an earlier intervention, has seen the economy through the recession, kept employment levels higher than ever through that kind of trough in economic activity, and introduced innovative policies, including taking unemployed teachers off the dole queue, helping young people with literacy and numeracy problems, and changes to business rates, which have now been replicated in Scotland and Wales. There have been innovative policies and good work has been done, despite the fact that many of the parties’ views have been so diverse.

We have a problem at the moment. Economics was always going to be an issue for the Northern Ireland Assembly, given the fact that there are people there who are to the left of the leader of the Labour party, and others who would be quite happy sitting on the Tory Benches. There was always going to be a problem with economics and we have now come to the issue of welfare reform.

Part of the problem is the way in which the Government have handled the issue. Instead of making it very clear from the start that no leeway would be given beyond the substantial changes made and that no handouts or further money would be thrown at the problem, that hope was always held out. There are still people in Northern Ireland who say, “If we went collectively, we could somehow or other escape the changes that have had to be made in the rest of the United Kingdom.” That is nonsense, but unfortunately it has been assisted by the unwillingness of the Government to take on Sinn Féin and tell it and the SDLP, “Look, we have allowed changes to be made on welfare in Northern Ireland and it’s going no further.”

The Government have to make it clear to Sinn Féin that criminality and the party’s association with criminals who launder money and engage in illegal activities, and its defence of them because they are former comrades, will not be accepted and that it has to be dealt with. Until that clear message goes out, I believe the present impasse will remain.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and congratulate the hon. Members for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing this debate on the political situation in Stormont.

The SDLP is committed to the talks process for the people of Northern Ireland. Our citizens have well and truly lost patience with the political situation in Stormont, with it hurtling from one crisis to the next because of the dysfunctional mismanagement by the two parties at the centre. The parties, and the British and Irish Governments, must commit to full and comprehensive outcomes.

Sinn Féin completely refuses to acknowledge the Chief Constable’s assessment of the possibility of paramilitary involvement in the murder of Kevin McGuigan in the Markets area of Belfast earlier this summer. There is also, of course, the failure of the DUP to work the institutions. Their approach of 10-minute Ministers going in and out has resulted in the public being sick, sore and tired of long waiting lists for healthcare. Our Minister for Health is a Minister for 10 minutes one day and then not a Minister for five days. That compounds an already difficult situation in that Department.

There is also a situation with renewable obligations for energy and renewable technologies in Northern Ireland. The people were told that they would last until the end of March 2017, but what the 10-minute Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment refused to tell them was that they were actually going to end in March 2016, thereby impacting on local industry and local capability, where there are enormous opportunities.

Does the hon. Lady dissociate herself from and repudiate the recent words of her party leader, who referred to Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland as “taigs”?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I do not think that that is exactly what our party leader said.

What I would ask is whether the DUP is fully up to power sharing, because that is the kernel or particular issue.

I can assure the hon. Lady that I will not follow the comments made by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), but he is quite right to ask the question.

The issue I wish to raise is quite different. The people in my constituency certainly want to know whether, if Sinn Féin agreed to some form of welfare reform, the SDLP would follow suit. When is the SDLP going to agree to the welfare reforms that have been rolled out across the rest of the United Kingdom?

The SDLP wants the best possible implementation of the Stormont House agreement for all the citizens of Northern Ireland. In fact, in February in the Assembly, it was the SDLP which tabled numerous amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill. The DUP and Sinn Féin refused to support the measures. They voted down amendments that would have improved the Bill. We were able to give the Minister—[Interruption.] In many instances, the amendments were cost-neutral.

Yes, that is right.

On another aspect of the issue, Northern Ireland needs to move into a shared future that fosters tolerance and respect across the entire island. We cannot do so if we do not confront our past. The north’s past will not simply be dealt with through the passing of time. The SDLP is not happy with the proposed legislation on the past, because we believe that it is an impediment to dealing with those issues and the recovery of truth and accountability. In my constituency, six innocent men were murdered in Loughinisland in County Down on 18 June 1994. We are still waiting on information regarding the truth; we are still waiting on justice. Above all, we are waiting to find out who perpetrated those murders and why they were perpetrated. Was there state involvement and was there involvement by the Royal Ulster Constabulary? We need to find out, which is why it is crucial that the Bill dealing with the past addresses those issues.

I am in absolutely no doubt, nor is my party, that Northern Ireland has considerable economic potential. We need a rebalancing of the economy, and we need balanced regional development. There is an opportunity for reconciliation, which must deal with the past and the situation of our current citizenry, so to speak, so that we can deal with the future. We must have a prosperous future, and we must be able to unite the people of the island of Ireland in terms of a reconciled future.

It is 10 years since the IRA was supposed to decommission its weapons, 10 years since the IRA was to disband its military operations, and 10 years since a party now at the heart of the Northern Ireland Executive began its transition to a party that was, at least so it said, committed to exclusively peaceful means. Ten years on, we have murder on the streets of Northern Ireland and it is that supposedly decommissioned, supposedly disbanded terror group that is once again making the headlines and putting Northern Ireland in the news for the wrong reasons.

We are holding this debate because armed terrorists carried out executions on the streets of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If this were any other part of the United Kingdom there would be a national outcry. Just how many lies have been told? How many more lies are we expected to believe? We were told the IRA had gone away and had left the stage. It was described as withering away by none other than the Independent Monitoring Commission. Do we believe Bobby Storey when he says that the IRA has disappeared into the air like a butterfly? Cassius Clay said that he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. When the IRA stings, people die. That is the difference. Do we believe Bobby Storey or do we believe the IMC? Do we believe the assessment of the IRA by the Chief Constable of the PSNI or do we believe that political colossus, Gerry “I was never in the IRA” Adams? Who do we believe?

Is it any wonder that Stormont is in crisis when the largest nationalist party cannot tell its partners in government the truth about its supposedly former terror wing? We cannot expect simply to brush all this under the carpet. After all the hurt, pain, suffering and death that the IRA caused, it is beyond an outrage that Sinn Féin cannot understand the angst not just in the Unionist community, but throughout the Province. Up and down Northern Ireland, normal hard-working families are worried—worried for the future, worried that terror is back on the streets, worried that they cannot trust those at the heart of our Executive and worried that it will affect them.

Does my hon. Friend agree that last week we saw an opportunity for the police to recruit from all communities across Northern Ireland, but that in some cases terror was manifested and threats were made? This weekend, there is one of the delayed recruitment procedures in the north-west of Northern Ireland, which offers an opportunity to politicians, trade unionists and the wider communities to stand united in opposing terror and ensuring that everybody across the community can join up with the police to ensure that terrorism never wins.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He covered my next point. Over a weekend when the PSNI tried to recruit across the whole of Northern Ireland, there were threats and bomb hoaxes. That may be the future that some republicans want to see, but we do not want it.

If Sinn Féin is willing to hide from the truth on this issue—an issue so close to home for many people across our United Kingdom—one must ask what else it is hiding. If Northern Ireland is truly to enjoy a new era and a true process of reconciliation, it is time for republicans to step up to the plate and start taking their responsibilities seriously.

The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) referred to the elephant in the room. It very clearly is in the room.

Northern Ireland deserves better than this. After all that we have been through, I implore the House to support those who are rooting out the scourge of terrorism within our society so that Northern Ireland can enjoy the true peace and stability it so deserves.

Order. If I am to call the remaining two speakers, they must each be brief because I want to hear the winding-up speeches from the Front Benches as well. If they could speak without interventions, that would help the House.

I am happy with the ruling that I should not take any interventions.

Had you been here earlier, Mr Speaker, you would have heard a number of contributions that could best be described as jaundiced, if not entirely negative. I am pleased that the debate is not entitled the political “crisis” in Stormont, but the political “situation”. I was pleased to support the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) in his request for this Back-Bench debate and I believe that it has been important. Aside from the jaundiced contributions, there have been a number of encouraging contributions.

I always like to believe that the glass is half full and there are reasons for optimism. It is important that we will receive an analysis this week of the situation that paramilitary organisations find themselves in and of the operations that they may or may not have been involved in, and that we will hear at first hand an independent assessment of what we should believe and what the threats are to Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) referred to the state of play in the Northern Ireland Executive. Members may well be aware that one member of the Executive resigned, not for any principled reason, but entirely for political opportunism. Few people in Northern Ireland recall who that individual was, never mind what was achieved.

There is a clamouring in Northern Ireland for our Executive Ministers to get back to their jobs full time. Irrespective of how disappointed people are about how things have progressed over the past few weeks, they want devolution to work. They want Stormont to succeed and they want to see delivery in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK. That is hugely important. We want to be back in our places in Stormont castle and in the Assembly.

We know what needs to change, and last week I was encouraged when the Deputy First Minister seemed to herald a shift in his position. That has been described as a preparing of the ground for a U-turn by Sinn Féin on welfare reform, and if that is right it is to be welcomed. It is disappointing the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has not taken the same view and still stands over the intransigence on welfare reform.

On criminality—the Minister will wish to respond to this—we need to get away from all those who have held us back in Northern Ireland, and from those who currently pillage and persecute their own communities and hold our community back. The Minister knows that he has our full support on that, whether on the Northern Ireland side of the border, in the Republic of Ireland, or internationally. Such positivity should not be misplaced and absent from this debate, and we look forward to a resolution to the current impasse.

Like many others, I have been concerned about recent developments in Northern Ireland. Paramilitary activity has no place in society, and it is right that the Secretary of State has called for an independent review to assess the status of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. I hope that that review will facilitate the talks that ensue.

It would be a travesty if Northern Ireland were to return to direct Westminster rule. Such a regressive step would be a hammer blow to the peace process, and could effectively mark the failure of the Good Friday agreement—a deal that was agreed by a majority of citizens in Ireland, north and south, and by the UK and Irish Governments. Peace has been a rocky road in Northern Ireland, and I acknowledge the work of a great many individuals in ensuring that it has lasted.

I am deeply concerned that the peace process does not appear to have been handled as sensitively as it ought to have been in recent years. Failure to find consensus on key areas such as dealing with the past, and external factors such as imposed austerity, are seriously hindering progress. The latter point is a key concern of mine because, as an anti-austerity politician, I find it alarming that such matters are impeding the peace process.

Northern Ireland has real and ongoing issues that are directly attributable to the legacy of the troubles. The situation is deeply complex, and the legacy of the troubles has left long-lasting socioeconomic problems. Northern Irish constituencies, although few in number, regularly sit atop the UK’s unemployment charts. Last month’s figures show that three of the Province’s 18 constituencies are also included in the five highest out-of-work benefit claimant rates per percentage of economically active population. There are generational issues and, not coincidentally, those three constituencies top the tables for unemployment among 18 to 24-year-olds—an age group too young to remember the actual troubles. Those are serious issues, and the root causes need to be addressed as part of the peace process.

The bedroom tax has caused misery for millions across the UK, and real damage to the governance of Northern Ireland. Although the Scottish Government protected citizens from that cruel levy, it has caused chaos over the water. It has not been easy, but the Holyrood Administration have done a commendable job of protecting the most vulnerable. At Stormont, however, the power-sharing Executive have been unable to reach a consensus and have repeatedly been thrown into turmoil on that key issue.

I hope that I am not a lone voice of common sense when I state my bemusement that Tory welfare reform is even being mentioned in relation to the peace process. It is clear that the Stormont House talks did not effectively resolve those issues in the way that they were meant to. Although it is not my place to comment on or dictate the nature of talks, agreements or resulting legislation, I hope to see progress and consensus on key issues. I am eager to see a positive outcome to the current talks, and I truly hope, for the sake of all those living in Northern Ireland and the decades-long peace process, that a lasting resolution can be found.

Order. We are extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. Unfortunately there will not be time for a Back-Bench winding-up speech. The opening contribution was substantial, for which we are grateful, but we now need to wind up the debate with the Front-Bench speeches.

I congratulate all those who have spoken this evening. Last time I spoke from the Dispatch Box on Northern Ireland matters I was able, proudly, to congratulate Kyle Lafferty on scoring the goal that took Northern Ireland forward. Tonight, it would be wrong and remiss if I were not to mention Josh Magennis and Steven Davis, as well as Michael O’Neill and everyone at the Irish Football Association. They should be proud of their achievement. I am sure this House will be supporting the green and white army in France next year.

It is important to put on the record the position of the Opposition. There has been much welcome regarding the return of my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), and we welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) to the team. There has been no change in the policy of the Labour party with regard to Northern Ireland. We reiterate, on the record, the bipartisan approach. It is vital that we place on record our unwavering commitment to the people of Northern Ireland and to the rule of law, and to reiterate the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling at the Labour party conference when he made it clear that we are fully supportive of the principle of consent as expressed in the Good Friday agreement and subsequent agreements.

We have heard some first-class speeches tonight. For anyone who has talked about negativism, I have to say that I have heard knowledge and I have heard people speaking from the perspective of experience. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), who secured the debate, should be given credit. He referred at one stage to a “dysfunctional quagmire”, a dramatic expression that will no doubt enter the parliamentary lexicon. It is not one I have heard before. He may be expressing his own personal concerns and fears, but there is, of course, much more to this debate than that.

We have heard from so many Members about the difficulty of moving forward from the past. None has made the case more dramatically than the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). On 30 July 1990, Ian Gow was killed. Twenty five years have passed since then. The three new commemorative shields over the door to the Aye Lobby will not have escaped the notice of the House. They represent not just Major Charles Lyell, who was the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South, but Captain Dr John Joseph Esmonde, who was the Member for North Tipperary and the famous Lieutenant Tom Kettle, that great poet from East Tyrone.

The past is all around us. The past is everywhere. We cannot ignore the past, but we have to move forward. One statement we heard tonight shows us how we are still facing terrible problems. The right hon. Member for Belfast North referred to Garda Anthony Golden, who was killed this week. Let us not forget that Garda Golden was the father of three young children. They no longer have a father. What we are talking about here tonight is not some abstract matter. This is not some political game or constitutional discussion. This really is a matter of life and death. It was rightly said that it is much more important that we talk about these issues here and in Stormont than resort to the alternative.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said that he might be rusty. I think the House owes my hon. Friend thanks and gratitude for his work from the Opposition Front Bench. He was not rusty. As ever, he was incisive. He was as sharp as a razor and absolutely to the point. We have much to learn from him and from the positivity he expressed.

In addition to trade unions, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) mentioned Washington. We should refer in these debates to the role of Dublin and the Irish Government, as well as Washington. We need all the friends we can get in resolving these matters. They have proven to be good friends.

Let us not forget the comments made by the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). He talked about the future, not the past. That is so important: let that be the key factor. Above all, the hon. Member for South Antrim brought this debate to the House not in a mood of despair, but, as far as I could see, in a mood of optimism. I hope we can resolve these issues.

I would like to put a couple of points to the Minister. The first is on the issue of welfare reform. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) raised these points. As he will know, Northern Ireland is not like any other part of the UK. We who have not lived through them cannot understand the effect of those traumatic and horrifying acts of terrorism and bloodshed. The post-traumatic stress and other mental health illnesses that blight and curse that community are beyond the imagination and experience of many of us on this side of the water. Does the Minister share the concerns on this side of the House that further reductions to services as a result of welfare reform threaten to enhance the cycle of generational problems of worklessness? What assistance will the Government be offering to ensure that mental health support services in particular are protected?

I reiterate the Opposition’s support for the Stormont House talks, but I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on the response he has received from the various political parties regarding the proposed legislation. Why is the implementation and reconciliation group referred to not included in the legislation? Finally, what progress is being made with the talks?

I could say more—we could all say more—but I will conclude by thanking, as I think we all do, the hon. Member for South Antrim, not just for bringing this debate, but for the conciliatory, gentle, positive and hopeful way in which he did so. He referred to the greatness of the people of Northern Ireland. We all agree with that. I hope that now is the time for the people of Northern Ireland to prove that they are not just a great people with a great past, but a great people with a great present and future. That future is ours to seize. Let us do it.

Before I start, may I add my and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s condolences to the family of Garda Office Anthony Golden? Whatever side of the Northern Ireland border one lives, we all support the PSNI and the Garda in the work they do every day, putting themselves at risk trying to keep people safe. The loss of Officer Golden’s life is truly a tragedy brought about by people who still stick to the path of violence. May I also make a brief apology for my right hon. Friend not being here? She is, of course, in Northern Ireland involved in the talks process.

This all started last December, when, after an 11-week period, the Stormont House agreement was brought about. It was designed to make a more prosperous, stable and secure Northern Ireland and to ensure that all the problems that had arisen since the Belfast agreement were put behind us, and we underpinned it with a generous settlement of £2 billion. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) that there is no more money. We funded the deal and put together the £2 billion package last year, and there is no open chequebook. The option is clear: to implement in full the Stormont House agreement. It is regrettable, therefore, that this year Sinn Féin decided to break the agreement. Had it not, I think that Stormont House would still be operating and on the path to producing a more prosperous and better Northern Ireland.

For the sake of people in Northern Ireland, however, we cannot allow a non-functioning Stormont to continue, which is why my right hon. Friend convened the talks—to try to work through the impasse. The Government and many other parties have stuck to their part of the Stormont House agreement. We have paved the way for corporation tax legislation at Stormont to allow flexibility and reduced levels to be put in place to encourage the desperately needed businesses to grow, and we are on the cusp of introducing legislation to deal with the legacy of the past. I can assure the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) that nothing in the proposed legislation will prevent her from finding out the truth of what happened to her constituent or justice from being served on the perpetrators, if they are identified.

We have also rolled out and started the process of that £2 billion package: the voluntary exit scheme for civil servants, the £150 million to deal with the legacies of the past and the £350 million towards the economic pact, but unfortunately welfare reform seems to be the sticking point. The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) could not have put it better. Whatever one’s position on welfare and my Government’s welfare policy, it needed to be implemented. I say to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that it was something that the parties signed up to in December last year. It is simply part of the politics we have to face and implement. Yes, we have allowed flexibilities—flexibilities that the constituents of the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) in Lancashire and I do not have. We have allowed flexibilities for Northern Ireland with its generous block grant to make accommodation for the troubles and their impact. It is important to see this through.

We cannot overlook the brutal murders that took place this year, culminating in the murder of Mr McGuigan in the Short Strand. Let me make it absolutely clear that there is no place in Northern Ireland or the rest of the United Kingdom for the paramilitaries or the existence of paramilitary organisations. This Government will fully support the investigation of the PSNI no matter where it leads. We will not interfere with it; we will only support what the Chief Constable of the PSNI does with his operational freedom to pursue justice. That is no more and no less than we should expect.

I support the Justice Minister in the devolved institution, Mr Ford, on his work with the organised crime task force. He is making progress. Only a few weekends ago, we had a successful search, arrest and charging of an individual linked to republican terrorism in west Belfast. I say to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) that we are making progress in bringing people to justice. With explosives taken off the street, they will not be available to cause harm to, and murder, people as they go about their business. The aim of all this is to bring violence and the men of violence to an end.

As for the contributions, I think that the hon. Member for South Antrim should not have apologised for bringing this debate. We should have more debates on Northern Ireland: it would give me more practice, but I am also delighted that Members of all parties have so fully engaged in the debate.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) focused on action, and I totally agree that we must take action to ensure that Stormont continues. My first time in politics was in the Scottish Parliament. I saw what a working Scottish Parliament can do for the people of Scotland. I would say that a working Stormont is the best path to peace and also the best path to prosperity. We should not let obstacles bring that institution down. If that means tough decisions being taken here, we might have to do that. I hope that the Scottish National party would not rule that out unconditionally.

To my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley, I repeat that there is no more money. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) made a valid point, however, and I welcome his support for the full implementation of the Stormont House agreement. The point is to see this agreement through—the agreement signed and sealed in December last year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) talked about his experiences of Northern Ireland and the chaos and murder that were brought to the mainland of the United Kingdom. We should not forget that the IRA blew up people going about their business shopping, including children and families in this country, in Northern Ireland and all around Europe. We should not forget that when we ask people to condemn the actions taken in the past.

I think the hon. Member for Bury South demonstrated why he deserved to be the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. His speech spoke very much about him being a mature politician who delivered what the UK Government should be delivering for Northern Ireland—a bipartisan approach, neutral to the extent of not favouring one party or the other, but focusing on the issue of consent and trying to move forward to the future rather than dwelling on the past.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) asked how long have we got. The money is running out; there is no magic money tree. We have gone as long as people will want to tolerate withdrawal of their services, as hospitals go into crisis and education is not able to function in Northern Ireland. We have as long as it takes, but my view is that the people of Northern Ireland will not tolerate it much longer—and neither should the parties of Northern Ireland.

The prize is great; the prize is in front of us. Northern Ireland is an exciting, confident place—better than when I was there in the ’90s. If we can resolve this Stormont House impasse, I think Northern Ireland will go from strength to strength—like its football team and the Irish rugby team.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the political situation in Stormont.