With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement about forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
As the House knows, Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland on Monday 9 January, as a result of which the First Minister also ceased to hold office. That began a seven-day period in which both positions had to be filled, or it would fall to me to fulfil my statutory obligation as Secretary of State to call a fresh election to the Assembly.
Over the past week, I have engaged intensively with Northern Ireland’s political parties to establish whether any basis exists to resolve the tensions within the Executive without triggering an election. I have remained in close contact with the Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been kept fully informed, and has had conversations with the former First and Deputy First Ministers and the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Regrettably, despite all our collective efforts, it has not proved possible to find an agreed way forward in the time available. In the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday, the Democratic Unionist party nominated Arlene Foster as First Minister, while Sinn Féin declined to nominate anyone to the post of Deputy First Minister.
I have some discretion in law over the setting of a date for an election, but, given the circumstances in which we find ourselves in Northern Ireland, I can see no case for delay. As a result, once the final deadline had passed at 5 pm yesterday, I proposed Thursday 2 March as the date of the Assembly election. The Assembly itself will be dissolved from 26 January, which means that the last sitting day will be 25 January. That will allow time for any urgent remaining business to be conducted before the election campaign begins in earnest. I am now taking forward the process of submitting an Order in Council for approval by Her Majesty the Queen, on the advice of the Privy Council, formally setting in law the dates for both the dissolution and the election. In setting those dates, I have consulted the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, who has given me assurances on operational matters relating to the running of the election. The decisions that I have made have also been informed by my ongoing discussions with Northern Ireland’s political leadership.
As all Members will understand, elections are, by their nature, hotly contested. That is part of the essence of our democracy. No one expects debates about the key issues in Northern Ireland to be anything less than robust. I do, however, wish to stress the following.
This election is about the future of Northern Ireland and its political institutions. That means not just the Assembly, but all the arrangements that have been put in place to reflect relationships throughout these islands. That is why it will be vital for the campaign to be conducted respectfully and in ways that do not simply exacerbate tensions and division. Once the campaign is over, we need to be in a position to re-establish strong and stable devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Let me be very clear: I am not contemplating any outcome other than the re-establishment of strong and stable devolved government. For all the reasons I set out in my statement last week, devolution remains this Government’s strongly preferred option for Northern Ireland. It is about delivering a better future for the people of Northern Ireland and meeting their expectations. For our part, the UK Government will continue to stand by our commitments under the Belfast agreement and its successors, and we will do all we can to safeguard political stability.
Over the past decade Northern Ireland has enjoyed the longest run of unbroken devolved government since before the demise of the old Stormont Parliament in 1972. It has not always been easy, with more than a few bumps in the road, but, with strong leadership, issues that might once have brought the institutions down have been resolved through dialogue. And Northern Ireland has been able to present itself to the world in a way that would have been unrecognisable a few years ago: a modern, dynamic and outward-looking Northern Ireland that is a great place to live, work, invest and do business.
Northern Ireland has come so far, and we cannot allow the gains that have been made to be derailed. So, yes, we have an election, but once this election is over we need to be in a position to continue building a Northern Ireland that works for everyone. That is the responsibility on all of us, and we all need to rise to that challenge.
In that spirit, Mr Speaker, I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement.
Like most of us, I am saddened that we are here today, and I know that so many good people in Northern Ireland will feel exactly the same, with deep regret that we have reached this impasse. I have personally been involved for almost three decades in Northern Ireland-related issues, and if I have learnt one thing it is that political vacuums should be avoided at all costs. So I say to the Secretary of State today that he must not only make sure that he is willing to fill that vacuum, but work with all parties to try to seek a way forward so that we avoid the nightmare scenario of six weeks of increasingly bitter campaigning which leaves us in the same place as when it started, with no solution in place to heal the huge divide and to bring together those elected to represent all the people of Northern Ireland.
I realise that the tension of an election dominates people’s minds and the news agenda may well be focused on other issues, but I suggest that for the sake of all of us on these islands we highlight the critical importance of maintaining devolved and functioning government in Northern Ireland. I want to see young men and women from Blaydon continuing to go to Belfast with rucksacks on their backs; I do not want to go back to the days when they went there with rifles over their shoulders. Anyone who thinks that this is some form of local difficulty in Northern Ireland should think again.
I want to see the continuing peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland that is helping to grow the economy and the life chances of all who live there. I want the world to look at Northern Ireland and rightly applaud the success we have witnessed over the past decades. I hope none of us wants to see a divided Northern Ireland that turns in on itself, as, sadly, we have seen so often in the past.
There are huge issues facing the people of Northern Ireland: our exit from the European Union and the real changes this will bring to everybody’s everyday lives; the uncertain position from the Government on the UK’s only land border with Europe; how to keep improving economic performance; and, critically, how we deal with Northern Ireland’s unique and painful past. Without a stable, workable Government, all these issues will be much harder to progress.
Last week, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister assured me and the House that there would be scope for the Northern Ireland voice to be heard in the run-up to our negotiations on the EU, via a Joint Ministerial Council. If that is the case, there is no reason for the Secretary of State not to engage with the parties and communities over the next eight weeks, in order to resolve the issues that have led to this breakdown. He must not let the election be an excuse for not getting people together.
Let us be clear: what is happening in Northern Ireland is not just about who is or is not the First Minister or Deputy First Minister, or the debacle that is the renewable heat incentive scheme. There are other real underlying issues, including how we support victims of the troubles; women’s rights; equality for LGBT communities; the treatment of ethnic minorities and migrant groups; and, above all, how we deal with Northern Ireland’s past and the crucial issue of trust and mutual respect. The Secretary of State has a responsibility to ensure that the Government deal with all parties in Northern Ireland on an equal basis. That is clearly a matter of huge concern to a number of the parties there.
I give due credit to the Secretary of State for the calm and measured tone that he has adopted so far, and I will not deny myself the optimism that those of us who love Northern Ireland still feel. To that end, I can assure the House that we in Labour will do everything we can to help, but all the parties need to look at what they can do to prevent the present impasse from degenerating into total collapse. Let me make it clear that we need to avoid a return to direct rule if at all possible. We need Northern Ireland politicians to stand up and be counted, to recognise their responsibility and to accept that the vehicle for addressing the concerns and needs of their communities is the Assembly and its Executive. The need for the continuation of the Assembly should be the No. 1 priority for them all, and for us in Westminster. The imposition of direct rule will serve no one. In the weeks to come, we should not let any personal political positioning, posturing or differences get in the way of the return of a working Government in Northern Ireland.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments and his emphasis on the need to return to shared government in Northern Ireland at the earliest possible opportunity. I welcome his support and his comments underlining the shared responsibility that we all keenly feel in seeking to achieve that outcome by using the time ahead as effectively as possible. He is aware that there is a relatively short period of time following an election—around three weeks—in which to form an Executive. We need to use all the time, up to polling day and beyond, to try to bring people together and to retain the sense of dialogue, difficult and challenging though that might be during an election period. It is important that we continue to do that.
We recognise that political stability is the primary responsibility of Governments. I have had discussions with all the parties since my last statement, and I have focused on engaging widely in order to encourage and promote a way forward. That is absolutely what I will continue to do in the time ahead. No one should prejudge the outcome of the election. We should be absolutely focused on seeking to get the right outcome, which is the continuation of devolved government in Northern Ireland. That is in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland as it will allow things to move forward. As the hon. Gentleman said, we must work collectively to that end and approach this in a positive way if we are to achieve that outcome.
I returned from Londonderry this morning following meetings there yesterday. I witnessed a great sense of frustration there about what is happening, and a great sense of disappointment that the Assembly is yet again under threat and has indeed fallen. Does the Secretary of State agree with me—and, indeed, with the proposal from the shadow Secretary of State—that the coming weeks should be used to explore all the possibilities? None of us wants to see a return to direct rule, but the worry is that there is a strong possibility that the election—which the Secretary of State is obliged to hold—will deliver the parties back to Stormont in roughly the same numbers as now. What is the likelihood of making progress under such similar arrangements? Surely we should use the coming weeks to put in place a plan B under which we could continue with some form of devolved government and not bring powers back to this House, because direct rule is not a satisfactory way of running Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He rightly identifies the maintenance of devolved government in Northern Ireland as the key issue. He is also right to say that we must use the available time to ensure that communication lines and dialogue remain open during the election period, however difficult that might appear. Equally, the issues relating to trust and confidence in the institutions, and in the ability of parties to work together in the shared government arrangement, will still need to be resolved. The question of how we can use this time to bring people together must be at the forefront of our minds.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me notice of his statement. I support the calls made yesterday for the election to be conducted in a manner that looks to the future and anticipates difficult but reasonable negotiations for the establishment of an effective Administration after the election. No one will get everything that they want from this election or from the formation of the new Executive, but the people whom the politicians serve deserve our best and most faithful efforts. The victory in this election should belong to the people, not to political parties.
This election has been brought about by circumstances that have their genesis in Belfast and that will also have their solutions in Belfast. We will be onlookers to a great extent, but there are some areas in which the efforts made here might help. I am pleased that dialogue between the Secretary of State and the parties in Northern Ireland will continue throughout the election period, so that the ground is prepared for the negotiations over holding office in March. Can he tell us whether he will take those opportunities to reassure the parties that funding will not be cut, particularly from the support for addressing the legacy issues? The Assembly suffers from the austerity fetish as much as the rest of the UK, but it carries additional burdens and needs those extra resources.
The past couple of months in the Assembly have been marked by some serious allegations. What support will the Secretary of State be able to offer the Assembly to have those allegations properly investigated and to find resolutions? The uncertainty of this election, with the peculiarities surrounding it, adds to the uncertainty of the Brexit mess. What support can the Government offer to people and businesses in Northern Ireland to smooth the next few months? Also, will he clarify what special arrangements he is putting in place to consult on the Brexit negotiations while the election is ongoing?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting the issues relating to the nature of the elections. I think we all recognise what is at stake here. I can assure her that we will be doing our part to maintain communication channels and open dialogue. We will continue to encourage the parties to think carefully about the nature of the campaign ahead and about how best to bring people back together afterwards to get on with the process of devolved government in Northern Ireland. She asked a number of more detailed questions. On the question of legacy, she will know that it remains this Government’s intent to give effect to the Stormont House agreement. Indeed, the funding commitments that were made in respect of that remain firmly in place.
In respect of support for the investigations and inquiry into the allegations that have provided the trigger, or the catalyst, for the situation we find ourselves in, I continue to believe that the best solution for this lies within Northern Ireland. This is a devolved matter, and it still seems right that the answers should come from that direction. I remain open to working with the parties on a cross-community basis to see what support can be given because, ultimately, getting answers on these issues is what matters.
On the UK’s departure from the European Union, as hon. and right hon. Members will have heard, the Prime Minister set out a very clear position on this Government’s approach. Indeed, she emphasised the issues on the common travel area and on strengthening the Union, too. Hon. and right hon. Members will have plenty of opportunity to raise further questions on that later today.
To the extent that the Secretary of State has a locus in this matter, may I make a fervent plea that he should protect the interests of former British soldiers currently being charged by the Sinn Féin-supporting Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland with murder for events that took place more than 40 years ago? Is he aware that it appears that the Director of Public Prosecutions issued a notice to news desks, not for publication, stating:
“We would advise that if you publish an article which alleges lack of impartiality on the part of the Director or any other prosecutor that the appropriate legal action will be taken and we will make use of this correspondence in that regard and in relation to a claim for aggravated and exemplary damages”?
Is that not an attempt to muzzle Parliament and, indeed, to question the right of this House to support those soldiers who sought to bring about peace in Northern Ireland?
In my usual way I have been, as I think the House would acknowledge, extremely generous to the hon. Gentleman. He has asked a most interesting question, and he has delivered it with his usual eloquence, but it does suffer from one disadvantage, which is that it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the statement made by the Secretary of State. Nevertheless, I have indulged the hon. Gentleman, and he can thank me on a daily basis.
My hon. Friend raises the important issue of legacy. As I indicated to the House last week, I will never tire of praising the work of our armed forces personnel in securing the peace, the stability and the arrangements that we see in Northern Ireland today. Yes, I do have some concerns about imbalance within the system, which is why I believe it is right that we move forward with the Stormont House agreement and the legacy bodies that are set up there. I will not comment on any individual decisions. Indeed, justice is devolved in Northern Ireland. It is independent, and has its own processes that remain in place in an independent way. I hear clearly his very general and very firm point on balance within the overall system, which is something that I am very keen to address.
The Democratic Unionist party has worked tirelessly in recent years to move Northern Ireland forward, to make devolution work and to create the conditions for stable government in Northern Ireland, so we are deeply disappointed, frustrated and, indeed, angered by the decision of Sinn Féin to walk away from devolved government and to cause this election. What is the election about? It is fairly clear that it is not about the renewable heat incentive issue; had it been, we could have got on with sorting it out. Indeed, the election will serve to disrupt and delay sorting out those issues.
The election is about Sinn Féin seeking opportune political advantage, seeking to overturn the result of the election held just a few months ago, seeking to gain a list of concessions from the Government on legacy issues, such as rewriting the past and putting more soldiers and policemen in the dock, and other issues, and seeking other concessions from the DUP. Let us be very clear that we will work through this election, and afterwards, to create a stable devolved Government in Northern Ireland, but let this House and the people of Northern Ireland know that, just as we have not given in to Sinn Féin’s demands in the past, we will not bow down and give in to Sinn Féin’s unreasonable demands going forward, because that is what this election is all about.
I recognise that there are strongly held views on all sides, and as we enter the election period, I am sure these issues will be hotly and keenly contested. From what the right hon. Gentleman says, I welcome the willingness to engage, the willingness to work things through and the desire to get back to stable, shared devolved government. We all have that focus in our minds when looking to the future of Northern Ireland and how we can get on with governing in the best interests of all Northern Ireland.
Does the Secretary of State agree that an unencumbered, unhindered press is vital to the future elections? Does he agree that any chilling effect or threat could undermine the very democratic essence of these elections? We must have a free and fair press.
I am sure that the issues around the election will be keenly and hotly contested. From all my experience of the press in Northern Ireland, it is fair, free and open, with wide debates contained within it. The Government certainly see those building blocks in the freedom of the press and, indeed, in the strength of our judiciary and legal processes, and we want to see that those pillars of our democracy are upheld.
In truth, Northern Ireland has lurched from one political crisis to another in recent years. Is it not time that the Government urgently reviewed the constitutional arrangements covering power sharing, including issues such as the title of First and Deputy First Minister and a whole range of other issues? Is that not how the Government could add value in terms of long-term stability?
We need to be very careful about the approach we take at the moment. We are now embarking on an election and, as I said, I do not want to prejudge the outcome of that election or, indeed, the discussions that take place during this period and through and beyond the short window of time that we have after the election period. We will do all we can as the UK Government, and we hold a primary responsibility to provide political stability within Northern Ireland. Clearly, the parties will need to discuss things through an open dialogue that I hope brings people back together, but at this stage, in seeking to open and widen the debate, we need to be very focused on the task at hand in bringing people back together again. Yes, the UK Government will play their part in supporting the Belfast agreement and its successors, bringing an element of stability and getting devolved government back in Northern Ireland, which is what we all want to see.
Having served on three tours in Northern Ireland, I congratulate the Secretary of State on his calm and measured approach in these difficult circumstances. Does he share my concern that if indeed the resignation of Mr McGuinness was political and not because of the environmental issue, the intent of Sinn Féin is to hold these elections and then not to reappoint, which would put pressure on my right hon. Friend to resort to direct rule, with all the consequences of that? Does he share my concern that that is a real possibility?
I have said that an election campaign that seeks to divide and to make it that much harder to bring people back together again afterwards is clearly a risk, and one that I am concerned about. Again, I encourage people to think about these issues very carefully. It is clear that the issues at stake here go much wider than simply the renewable heat incentive scheme, which was perhaps the catalyst that crystallised this. We need to be very careful, and we need to appreciate what is at stake here. Again, it is so important that people are able to work together and to maintain communication and dialogue so that we see the return of shared government in Northern Ireland for all communities at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Secretary of State has quite rightly said that trust and confidence in the institutions in Northern Ireland have to be rebuilt. One of the best ways of doing that is transparency, including transparency on the renewable heat incentive scheme and, with the greatest of respect to him, on the political parties operating in Northern Ireland, and on the donations to them. Sinn Féin has precipitated this election. The people in Northern Ireland are entitled to know who is funding Sinn Féin, who is funding this premature Assembly election and, by the same token, who is sponsoring and funding the other political parties in Northern Ireland. Please do not tell me that that is a good idea and that the Secretary of State will reflect on it. What is he going to do about it?
The hon. Lady has rightly made the point on political donations and transparency over a number of weeks and months, and I have a huge amount of sympathy for the view she rightly takes. That was why I wrote to all the party leaders a short time ago to ask them to come back to me with their views by the end of this month so that we can move things forward. It is right that we look at that reform and start to put in place changes that give that greater transparency to politics in Northern Ireland. That is why I have written, and I look forward to receiving the responses so that we can move forward.
I commend my right hon. Friend’s calm and measured approach to this problem. Will he update the House on what he will do to facilitate the voice of Northern Ireland, from politicians, being heard in the run-up to triggering article 50? Obviously, the Assembly will be removed quickly, an election will be held and then there will be a short period before we trigger article 50. We want to make sure that the voice of Northern Ireland is heard in our approach to our future.
It is important to recognise that although an election has been called, Ministers other than the First Minister and Deputy First Minister remain in place in the Executive, and therefore we will continue to invite the Executive to send representation to each of the meetings that will continue through the Joint Ministerial Committee or through other means. That approach will be taken as we look towards the triggering of article 50, but obviously I will continue to have engagements across the community, with business, with the voluntary and community sectors, and more broadly, to ensure that we continue to listen to and reflect upon the views of people in Northern Ireland as we look to the negotiations ahead.
Will the Secretary of State share with us more of his thoughts on what he expects to happen after an election in Northern Ireland? Does he accept that the problems will remain? Without his calling a public inquiry on the RHI or, if he cannot find a way to do that, his making it clear that he fully supports a public inquiry, public confidence in our political settlement will sink even lower, making restoration of the Executive even more difficult. That is what people have been telling me on the streets during the past few days and the past week. They said that they need clarity, as we are having an election in a fog.
Clearly, RHI scheme issues have been very much at the heart of what has led to the election that I have now called. It is right that we get answers on that, because it is crucial to re-establishing trust and confidence, seeing accountability and giving answers to the public about what has taken place. As I have said, it is right for that to come from Northern Ireland, as much as is possible, as this was a devolved issue and something that related to decisions within Northern Ireland. But I stand ready to work with people and consider options on a cross-community basis where support is commanded across the community. This is about how we get those answers and inject confidence back into the whole process.
I am sure the Secretary of State and others in the House may reflect on the irony that this election has been caused by the resignation of a man who spent a lot of his life trying to use violence to overcome the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland to be part of this United Kingdom. Will he also agree that it is vital that work is done to ensure that in dealing with the legacies of the past there is an equity once this election is out of the way, so that those who put their lives on the line to defend this democracy are not unduly hounded by these legal processes?
It is right that we have a system that is fair, balanced and proportionate. I have been clear about that on a number of occasions and about why I strongly believe that the Stormont House agreement and the legacy institutions contemplated within that provide a real framework and way forward to achieve that. I am concerned that there is an imbalance in the system, with a focus on state-based actors, and getting answers for those who lost loved ones as a consequence of terrorist atrocities is essential. That is why I want to see this moving forward and why we strongly believe change is required.
We all wish everyone in Northern Ireland well in trying to resolve these current difficulties. May I press the Secretary of State on what he is doing on working in partnership with the Irish Government? The British and Irish Governments are co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, so what plans does he have to work with the Irish Government to help to resolve these difficulties? Is he planning a summit? Is he planning talks? Is he calling everybody in? What concrete measures is he planning to take to work with the Irish Government to help to resolve these difficulties?
As I have indicated to the House, I have had regular ongoing communication with Charlie Flanagan, the Irish Foreign Minister, and the Prime Minister and Taoiseach have had conversations. I certainly intend to meet Charlie Flanagan in the very near future so that we can assess the current situation and determine how our two Governments can seek to encourage and promote, and bring people together in a way that leads to, the maintenance and continuation of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
What alternative to direct rule would be available if these elections did not result in an immediate power-sharing Government?
I have said that I think it would be premature and wrong to contemplate something other than devolved government in Northern Ireland—that is where we need to have all our focus in the weeks ahead. I am talking about encouraging the parties, dialogue and communication, which is absolutely necessary. Although others will say, “What if this, what if that, what if we don’t get to a position where we have that?”, I am not contemplating that; I am contemplating how we use the time available to us to maintain devolved government, get people back into that power-sharing arrangement and get on with what the people of Northern Ireland want, which is having that settled situation, taking Northern Ireland forward and seeing that positive, optimistic Northern Ireland which I know is there and which has so much more to give.
Central to those political institutions has been the principle of power sharing, so what efforts will the Secretary of State and the British Government, working with the Irish Government, make to ensure that the principles of power sharing, mutual understanding and respect for political difference, which have withered away over the past number of months, will be strictly adhered to following these elections? What work with the Irish Government will take place within the next few weeks to do just that?
I have already indicated to the House the dialogue and discussion we have had with the Irish Government, the work that we will continue and the discussions that we continue to have. I stress, as I said in my statement, that this Government remain committed to the Belfast agreement and its successors—and all of what that means. Therefore, we will play our part to support the parties, discussion and dialogue, so that we move to that stable devolved government position that underpins so much of the positive work that we see in Northern Ireland. We wish to return to that period of stability which is what everybody would wish to see.
Foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland has been a great success in recent years, so will my right hon. Friend reassure me that he and his office will do all they can to maintain that positive momentum during this period of political instability?
Absolutely. I can give that assurance to my hon. Friend, because Northern Ireland has seen so much success in terms of foreign direct investment; I believe it is the region with the greatest foreign direct investment outside the City of London, which underlines the huge potential that I see and the huge ability for Northern Ireland to continue to flourish and do so much more. We absolutely will continue to underline that message.
May I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell)? He and I, and many others in this House, have worked hard to bring the peace process to where it today, and we have taken risks, and I despair of where we are just now. May I say to the Secretary of State that if he is going to sit on his hands for the next six weeks and do nothing about the current crisis, he can forget getting devolution up and running three weeks after an election? I support the suggestion made by the hon. Gentleman, for which there is cross-community support: let this Government get on with holding the public inquiry on the RHI scheme that Sinn Féin has blocked.
The Government will continue to do all they can to support the parties in finding their way through to a resolution. As I have indicated in answers to previous questions, I remain open to considering issues that command cross-community support in order to find answers and get to the root of the issues in respect of the RHI inquiry. I will continue to hear the points that are made on a cross-community basis because, ultimately, whatever is done must command confidence and support in Northern Ireland if it is to be successful.
The connections between the people of Merseyside and the people of Northern Ireland are many, and they run deep. May I press the Secretary of State on what he is doing, given the current political situation and the effect on Stormont’s budget, to absolutely ensure that the people of Northern Ireland do not lose out?
The clearest way for the people of Northern Ireland not to lose out is for devolved government to be re-established at the earliest possible opportunity. That way, work can continue, budgets can be set and programmes can be put in place to take Northern Ireland further forward. That is why I make the point in such clear terms about the focus, attention and effort that we give to working with the parties to encourage dialogue and discussion, and to bring people together. That is the most powerful and effective way to give effect to what the hon. Lady said.
We can have as many elections as we choose to hold, but we will get the strong, stable devolved Government that the Secretary of State says he wants only when we have trust between the parties and transparency in the workings of the Executive. To get that, we need an independent examination of the conduct of the RHI scheme. Under the Inquiries Act 2005, the Secretary of State has the locus to order an inquiry; it is surely apparent that nobody else is going to do that, so he must.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about that sense of trust, which has clearly broken down in Northern Ireland, hence the situation in which we find ourselves. I hear his point about the need for answers, transparency and an inquiry. As I have indicated, I strongly believe that the best way to achieve that is by Northern Ireland doing that itself, because that is where the issues arose and where devolution is holding fire. As I have already indicated to other parties, I will listen to and reflect on suggestions and proposals that come forward on a cross-community basis, because ultimately that is what will be needed not only to command confidence and respect, and ensure that any investigations or inquiries are balanced and actually get to the answers that people want, but to ensure that accountability is shown.
The Secretary of State has my support as he charts the course set by the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements in re-establishing the devolved institutions, but the Prime Minister’s commitment today to a hard Brexit will cause widespread concern in Northern Ireland. Will he outline how he will work in full partnership with the Irish Government on this matter while the Assembly and Executive are not functioning?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for our work to ensure the return of stable devolved government. I do not, though, recognise his characterisation of what the Prime Minister has said. She has set out a bold, positive vision of what this country can and will be outside the European Union, but yes, of course, there is a negotiation to come. We have, of course, had initial dialogue and discussion with the Irish Government on how we get the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland. That was reflected in what the Prime Minister said today about the common travel area and strengthening the Union. That is precisely the approach we will take.
Would the Secretary of State care to outline what exactly people will be voting for if Sinn Féin refuse to work with the Democratic Unionist party, set impossible criteria, or ask for impossible concessions? How is the Secretary of State ensuring that Sinn Féin are not calling the shots, if I can use that pun, when it comes to who is elected to the Government of Northern Ireland, and that the electorate know that their vote will not be ignored because of the petty machinations of a party that simply wants its own way and does not like being challenged by a strong DUP team?
Ultimately, the election will be about the future direction of Northern Ireland. As we are in a democracy, I am sure the issues will be debated to and fro in the coming weeks—that is absolutely the whole point of the political and democratic system that we operate under. So much is at stake here. As I said yesterday, I encourage people to take part and vote in the election.
The people of Northern Ireland are magnificent. They have got used to living with a sense of peace over the past 18 years. They need hope going forward. I just listened to the Prime Minister’s speech, in which she talked about making practical arrangements for the border, and making that a priority. In today’s context, those are warm words. She has managed a phone call, but she should be here, and she should have been there. I have listened to the Secretary of State talk about his phone call and his activity over the past week, and with due respect, I think that is wholly inadequate. The elections are about not only the future of Northern Ireland but all our futures—those on the island of Ireland, and those who live on this island. What meetings will the Secretary of State have with the Irish Government and the Taoiseach in the next few weeks, and what will those conversations involve? What hope can he offer today to the people of Northern Ireland?
As I have indicated, the Government’s clear intent and focus is on seeing the return of devolved government in Northern Ireland. That is what is absolutely in the best interests of Northern Ireland, which is why I will continue to do all I can to bring together the political parties. Ultimately, that political division has been part of the issues at stake. Yes, of course, as I have indicated to the House today, we have had continued dialogue and discussion with the Irish Government, and we will continue to keep them closely informed. As I indicated to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), I intend to meet the Irish Foreign Minister very shortly to discuss the position and how we can work together and ultimately re-establish devolved government and the sense of the politics moving forward. We should be positive about what we can achieve. I am certainly not going into this issue in a negative way; it is all about how we can get on with it and make it happen.
The Secretary of State has said today that he is committed to any action having cross-community support in Northern Ireland. As this crisis has been brought about by Sinn Féin’s demand for more security forces personnel to be taken to court and put in the dock, and for politically motivated inquests into deaths caused by the security forces, will he give a commitment today that there will be no money for politically motivated inquests, that no security forces files with national security implications will be released, and that he will not persuade Sinn Féin to re-enter government at the expense of soldiers being dragged through the courts?
On the issue of legacy, the Stormont House agreement, to which all the parties signed up, provided the right framework and the right way forward. I hold stark national security responsibilities that I feel very keenly about, in terms of safety on the streets of Northern Ireland here and now, and what that means more broadly. On the issue of legacy, it is important that we are able to find a way forward that is more balanced and proportionate, and that sees Northern Ireland looking to the future, rather than the past. We must focus on providing that framework, so that we can move things forward in that way. The hon. Gentleman will well know the issues and bodies set out previously, and, indeed, the way in which engagement has taken place over many months. I believe there is a way forward, but we need to have the framework, the intent, and the balanced and proportionate approach that I continue to underline.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the effect of the political instability on potential investment in Northern Ireland?
I have had some discussions with business representatives. It is important that we get back to stable devolved government at the earliest opportunity. Again, that is the most powerful way to underline Northern Ireland’s moving forward. There is so much that we can be positive about, including the jobs that have been created and the foreign direct investment made. There are so many fantastic businesses in Northern Ireland, too. That is what we should be celebrating. It is that positive, optimistic viewpoint of Northern Ireland’s economy that we should be advancing.
After the Assembly election in March, agreement will need to be reached on a new power-sharing Executive. However, if that does not happen, there is a very real possibility of a return to direct rule from Westminster. Does the Secretary of State think that it is acceptable for the people of Northern Ireland, who voted to remain in the European Union, to witness the triggering of article 50 while they live in total political limbo?
That underlines my general point on the need to get back to devolved government at the earliest opportunity, but as I have indicated, we intend to trigger article 50 by no later than the end of March; that is the approach that we have taken, and that is the work that continues. Invitations to appropriate meetings will continue to be made to the Executive, notwithstanding the current situation.
Further to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), there are concerns in my constituency that the Government’s eagerness to set up an Assembly immediately after the elections could lead to them contemplating some form of side-deal with republicans to get it up and running. May I gently warn the Secretary of State that that will be unacceptable?
There is a limited period under law in which to form a new Executive; it is around three weeks following a poll. That is why I make the point about maintaining open dialogue and thinking about how we can bring parties together. There has to be a sense of commanding support from across the community, which is why we need to listen very keenly and intently to the voices of the hon. Gentleman’s party and other parties on the process ahead. I stress the need to hold dialogue and discussions, and to focus on the principles in the Belfast agreement and its successors—those things to which all parties have signed up. That provides us with the framework, and we need to get on and do it.
As we face this phase of challenges, it is right that we should mourn the passing of Dermot Gallagher, former doyen of the Department of Foreign Affairs and one of the lynchpins for so much of this process, bringing us from transfixed to transactions to transformations. We need to emulate his purposeful ethic in the time ahead. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. Will the Secretary of State recognise that, after the elections, there will be negotiations, and that those negotiations will have to be more inclusive, more comprehensive and more fundamental than what passed for negotiations in Stormont House? The outcome will have to be more robust and more reliable than the political Febreze that we got with the “Fresh Start” agreement.
I certainly pay tribute to Dermot Gallagher, and send my condolences to his friends and family and all those who remember him and his contribution. As I have said, I do not want to prejudge the outcome of this election, nor indeed of discussions that will take place. I earnestly want that to be achieved throughout this election period, in whatever way possible. I also want to see that in the discussions that take place afterwards. We must achieve a position that creates stability and a sense of shared power arrangements, as that will allow Northern Ireland to move on. That must be our focus and our intention, and it is why I make the point about being very thoughtful and conscious the nature of the campaign, so that we can bring people back together afterwards.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that after the election, the framework of a devolved Assembly and of a shared Executive will be the settled framework for moving forward, and that joint authority with the Republic of Ireland, or wholesale renegotiation of agreements already in place, do not form part of his plan for moving forward? If he does not give expression to that certainty, further drift will occur; we must nip it in the bud now.
I can confirm that that is absolutely my intent. It is absolutely the approach that I take. It is about getting through the election, and seeing the re-establishment of the Executive and of the devolved government that we have had. Although I hear all of the broader talk, that must be our focus: how we re-establish trust and confidence in our institutions and systems, so that Northern Ireland can move forward.
The Ulster Unionist party wants a strong and stable devolved Government who work for everyone, but this crisis is about trust between the two main parties in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State said that he was committed to the Belfast agreement and all its successors, yet this morning on the radio, we heard a Democratic Unionist party Executive Minister say that he had no intention of implementing the St Andrew’s agreement in full. Surely it undermines all agreements if parties are not willing to tie themselves to what they have agreed. Will the Secretary of State look at the structures of the Belfast agreement, and at how we can get back to the joint election of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister?
I did not hear the comments this morning, so it is difficult for me to comment directly, but as I have said, the UK Government stand by their commitments under the Belfast agreement and its successors and the framework that is set in place. The question is how we use the time ahead to look at ways to bridge gaps and put devolved power-sharing arrangements in place at the earliest opportunity. Obviously, I will continue to discuss that with all parties.
Does the Secretary of State agree that in the past months and years, problems, even major ones, have been resolved when all parties dedicated themselves to working through them? Yesterday, a Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister refused to be re-nominated; Sinn Féin have indicated that they will not nominate even after the election. Walking away is not a solution, but working through the problems most certainly is.
Division has existed in Northern Ireland in the past, and some people said then that it could not be bridged, yet Northern Ireland has shown what can be done. We need to reflect on Northern Ireland’s past, the political achievements reached, and the strengths of dialogue, discussion and bringing people together as we look to the future and at what can be achieved. I hope that we will see a return of devolved government.
The Secretary of State will know that Belfast politicians regularly quote the dogs in the street, but if they were to summarise the Northern Ireland Office’s position in this, it would be “barking mad”. This is not the time for him to be a bystander in these discussions. He should not fail to recognise what the Prime Minister recognised last week, which is that no one can or should benefit from the instability, and from wrecking the progress and the political institutions that we have fought so hard to obtain for Northern Ireland.
I am not, and will not be, a bystander in relation to these issues. It is important that the UK Government play their role in supporting the parties, and in fulfilling our obligations relating to providing political stability in Northern Ireland. That is what we will use the time ahead to achieve. The issues at stake are significant, and those relating to the political future of Northern Ireland are very clear. That is why I make these points about the collective responsibilities that we all have in taking this forward, and about getting back to that positive outlook for Northern Ireland that the people of Northern Ireland would like to see.
The Secretary of State said in his statement that, with strong leadership, issues that might once have brought down institutions have been resolved through dialogue. Can he therefore assure the House that, with the Taoiseach, the Prime Minister will give that strong leadership? As vice-chairman of the all-party group on Ireland and the Irish in Britain, I echo the sentiment of the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), the chair of the all-party group, in calling on the Prime Minister to put her foot on the pedal and get that 100% support.
I underline for the hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister’s commitment to these issues. She has been kept very closely informed and updated, and has had discussions with the former First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and indeed the Taoiseach. We are committed as a Government to a return to devolved government and a positive outcome after these elections have taken place. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want, and what we all want. We have a shared and collective drive to achieve that, and we all need to focus on achieving it.
On a point of order relating to the next statement, Mr Speaker.
I gather that this point of order relates to the next immediate piece of business, and therefore, exceptionally, I will take it now.
Thank you for your generosity, Mr Speaker. As I am sure you will agree,
“In our constitution, Parliament is supposed to be sovereign…We…need a system that gives Parliament real powers over ministers…and the transparency to restore public trust”—
not my words, but those of the now Prime Minister in 2007. I will be scrutinising a Minister shortly on the implications of Brexit for Wales, but do you share my concern that on one of the most fundamental issues facing this country in a generation, the Prime Minister chose to be accountable not to the House this morning, but to the media and foreign ambassadors? Churchill would not have done it; Thatcher would not have done it; but it seems that when it comes to this House, this lady is not for turning up.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I do not have all the precedents in front of me, but I think that there has been a developing phenomenon in recent decades whereby, under successive Governments, important statements have sometimes been made outside the House that we would have welcomed being made first inside the House. I am pragmatic in these matters and say to the hon. Gentleman and others who might share his concern that when I heard of the Prime Minister’s important speech, scheduled for today, my first concern was that a senior member of the Government should come to the House on the same day to address us on the same matter. I had contact with the powers that be to make precisely that point. I am pleased to say that we have in our midst, and in my line of vision, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, whom, I rather imagine, the hon. Gentleman will wish in due course to interrogate. Meanwhile, let us hear from the Secretary of State.