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Northern Ireland

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2017

The Secretary of State was asked


1. If he will make an assessment of the implications for his policies of recent statements by Gerry McGeough on the judiciary. (909171)

I condemn the irresponsible and disgraceful comments made by Gerry McGeough. I strongly support the work of the judiciary in Northern Ireland. Any attack on it is unacceptable.

I thank the Minister for his response, but I call on him to contact the Public Prosecution Service to find out why a man who was convicted of the attempted murder of my colleague Councillor Sammy Brush and released on licence following his conviction, and who is known to have a lengthy history of violence, is not being pursued by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the PPS for his recent threat against Catholic members of the judiciary, whom he named as traitors. What will the Minister do to ensure that action is taken?

I reiterate our condemnation of the comments made by Gerry McGeough. Our responsibility, if we are given the relevant information, is to consider whether we can suspend the licence. It is up to the independent commissioners to discuss that. It would be wrong for us to seek to fix the system further down. I trust our police service and the PPS to make the right decision.

The Minister will know that Mr McGeough did not receive a comfort letter, apparently because of an internal feud within Sinn Féin. The scheme for issuing comfort letters to those on the run—a scheme operated by Labour and Conservative Governments—was utterly deplorable, completely immoral and wrong. Will the Minister confirm for the record that no such scheme, or anything akin to an amnesty, is on the table for negotiation with Sinn Féin in dealing with legacy issues? That would be very helpful.

Power-sharing Agreement

2. What progress has been made on a power-sharing agreement following the recent elections in Northern Ireland. (909172)

The Government are committed to the resumption of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and I believe that the parties and the Irish Government share this commitment. Later today, I will return to Belfast to continue intensive discussions to establish a partnership Executive within the short timeframe available. Progress has been made but it needs to continue, with urgency, if we are to achieve a positive outcome.

As a nurse, I am acutely aware of the need for the Northern Ireland Executive to set a budget to ensure that public services, particularly health services, are adequately funded. Without an Executive in place, that is almost impossible. Does the Secretary of State share my fear that the failure to restore the Executive is putting Northern Ireland at severe financial risk?

My hon. Friend highlights some of the issues surrounding setting a budget for Northern Ireland, which is a key priority. She highlights the health service, and I pay tribute to all those who work in the health service in Northern Ireland. They do an incredible job. There is a sense of the real potential and opportunity that a new Executive can take forward, and we must equally reflect on the £120 million identified in last week’s Budget that an Executive could invest, through to 2021, to really take Northern Ireland forward.

May I, on behalf of my colleagues, express my condolences and sympathy to the families of the crew of the Irish Coast Guard helicopter that has crashed? I am certain that everyone in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic will be deeply sympathetic to the families at this time. I also extend my sympathy to the family of George Gilmore, who was murdered in Carrickfergus in recent days. It appears that this appalling and terrible crime was carried out by loyalist paramilitaries. Will the Secretary of State reiterate the determination of all of us to move forward on the Stormont House agreement in relation to the provisions to tackle paramilitarism, both republican and loyalist?

I join the right hon. Gentleman in his comments and thoughts about the crew of the Irish helicopter. That is a terrible tragedy and I know that the whole House will share that view. I also join him in condemning the appalling murder that has taken place. I spoke to the PSNI about the case this morning, and I know that it is actively pursuing lines of inquiry. He also highlights the issue of paramilitarism, and I stand absolutely four-square behind our continuing work to confront that scourge. There is no justification for it at all. We are also providing funding to the tune of £25 million in support of that important work.

Further to that, the Secretary of State will be aware that the DUP is absolutely and totally committed in the current talks to getting devolution back up and running in Northern Ireland. We did not tear down the institutions or create the present crisis; others walked away. We are determined to restore the Executive as quickly as possible. What the Prime Minister said yesterday about ruling out a border poll was good, but will the Secretary of State confirm that the Irish Republic’s involvement in the strand 1, 2 and 3 talks is limited to strands 2 and 3 on the relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and that the Republic also has a role to play in answering questions about legacy issues?

I can certainly confirm that that is the approach that is being taken, which is consistent with the Belfast agreement. The contribution that the Irish Government are making in that context is positive, and we all feel a responsibility to see devolved Government back in place, delivering for Northern Ireland. I know that all the parties recognise that and are working hard to achieve it.

11. Having been a Member of Parliament for many years prior to devolution, I am acutely aware of the total inadequacy of direct rule. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he is undertaking the negotiations with the utmost urgency and intensity to get a deal on devolved government? (909181)

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that devolved government is the only thing that I am working towards. That is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for and that is what they want to see delivering change for Northern Ireland and having a positive impact on people’s lives. We are approaching that with urgency.

I am pleased to hear that the Secretary of State rules out the direct rule option, but what contingency planning is he doing? Is he prepared to extend the negotiation period if no agreement is reached?

The UK Government take their responsibilities seriously in providing political stability, but the focus—the real intent—is on securing an outcome and an agreement in that three-week period. I believe that that is doable and achievable, and it is with that approach, and with good will, that I hope the parties will engage to achieve that outcome. Speculating on alternative approaches is not helpful.

I echo the comments of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on those who recently lost their lives.

Hard-working people in Northern Ireland will be staunchly behind the Secretary of State in his efforts to re-establish a new Administration following the elections. However, in order to concentrate minds, if local politicians are unwise enough not to form an Administration, will he consider taking measures to cease paying salaries and expenses to those who have been elected?

My right hon. Friend highlights a report that was published on that issue over the past week or so. My focus is on getting the parties together to reach an agreement within the three weeks. As I said, I think that that is doable with urgency and a sense of good will. That is what we need to focus on.

Today is a rather sombre day in that it marks the Ides of March, but this Friday we will have the opportunity to hail glorious St Patrick. If you will allow me, Mr Speaker, I will wish you and the House the happiest St Patrick’s day in advance.

Like many Members, I cannot remember a more serious time since the Good Friday agreement was signed, and I say on behalf of my Opposition colleagues that normal hostilities are suspended. We will be offering unequivocal support to the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Government. The time for internecine dispute in this place is over; the time for constructive engagement and working together is here and now. In that tone, and with reference to the talks the Secretary of State mentioned earlier, has there been a roundtable plenary involving any or all of the parties?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. I think we share a cross-party approach on the serious issue of ensuring that we get an Executive back in place, delivering for Northern Ireland and following through on commitments and, indeed, the expectations of the public. I hope he will understand that I will not provide a running narrative on the talks, but I can say that I believe progress is being made. Some significant issues still need to be resolved, but we are none the less approaching this with good will.

I entirely accept that there is good will, but I am slightly concerned about the statement by the leader of one of the Northern Irish parties that some meetings have been cancelled. I wish to give the Secretary of State a fair following wind, as do we all. Has he received any representation from the charitable sector within Northern Ireland about problems it is facing due to the budgetary impasse?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it goes back to the fact that a budget has not been set, which has created uncertainty. We need to see the Executive in place within the three-week timescale, because there could be implications for a range of different issues within Northern Ireland. That is why the community and voluntary sector, the faith community and the business community have been firmly underlining the clear need to get devolved government working, stable and back, and that is where our focus needs to be.

Good Friday Agreement: Institutions

3. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Republic of Ireland on the future of institutions established under the Good Friday agreement. (909173)

The Government stand firmly behind the institutions of the Belfast agreement and its successors. I have regular discussions with the Irish Government on a range of issues. Our immediate focus, consistent with the Belfast agreement, is working with the parties to resume the devolved Administration.

The Secretary of State will know that, at the time of the Good Friday agreement nearly 19 years ago, the European Union played a role alongside the Irish and British Governments. Does he envisage any role for international support to maintain the institutional frameworks, particularly the all-Ireland institutional co-operation that has been so important over recent years?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the strong relationship between the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of the Republic of Ireland. We stand four-square behind our commitments under the Belfast agreement and its successors, and at EU level I have picked up strong support for the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. We are determined to get the best possible deal for Northern Ireland, recognising our commitments and recognising the Belfast agreement.

15. On the Good Friday agreement, will the Secretary of State ensure that the disgraceful treatment of my constituent Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings and others will be addressed as part of any further discussions on legacy issues? (909185)

My hon. Friend has raised the issue of her constituent on a number of occasions, and I pay tribute to her for her work as a constituency MP. She will understand that I am unable to comment on individual cases, but I can say that the current system for dealing with a range of issues related to legacy is not working for anyone. It is not working for service personnel and it is not working for victims, which is why it is important that we move forward with the Stormont House bodies to create the balanced, proportionate and fair system that everyone recognises is needed.

Does the Secretary of State not understand that Brexit could have implications for the standing and currency of some of the implementation bodies that were created under strand 2 of the agreement? Also, does he appreciate that strand 2 offers an ambit of north-south co-operation and common implementation that could help to answer some of the problems that Brexit creates?

Before Christmas there was a good discussion at the North South Ministerial Council on the EU and other related issues. It is important to recognise the institutional framework that we have under the Belfast agreement. That is something we support, and I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the White Paper, which highlighted that support and our recognition of it.

The Secretary of State will have heard the belligerent utterance of the former Sinn Féin director of Unionist engagement, who said that the Prime Minister can stick a hard or soft border

“where the sun doesn’t shine”.

I invite the Secretary of State to remind Martina Anderson and all those in Sinn Féin that it is the Good Friday agreement that sets the terms for the future of Northern Ireland, that it is based on the majority will of the people and that it has not changed.

We stand behind the Belfast agreement and the principle of consent that is contained within it. The hon. Gentleman will have heard what the Prime Minister said on that issue yesterday. Of course we recognise that there are significant issues, which is why we have said that we do not want to see a return to the borders of the past and that we recognise the desire for an expansive free trade agreement with the EU. It is important that we continue that dialogue and discourse and that we focus on these serious issues in that way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) is right to refer to the role of the Irish Government, and I praise the Secretary of State for the good working relationship he has established with Minister Flanagan. I thank him for the statements made by his Minister yesterday at yet another of the many St Patrick’s day celebrations, when he paid tribute not only to the role of our co-guarantor of the Good Friday agreement, the Dublin Government, but to Ambassador Dan Mulhall, who will be leaving us in London for Washington. Does the Secretary of State agree that Ambassador Mulhall has been a perfect example of how we can work together in the interests of all?

I have very much enjoyed and appreciated working with Ambassador Mulhall, whom we wish well in his new and perhaps challenging and exciting role. It is important to underline the strong relationship we have with the Irish Government on a range of issues. We want to see that continuing into the future, and that engagement will be continued with that spirit in mind.

Political Developments

Nearly 65% of the Northern Ireland electorate voted for continued devolved government. I have seen that endorsed over the past 10 days in a shared willingness among the parties to engage in intensive discussions, acknowledging what is at stake if an Executive are not formed. These are still significant challenges, but I believe that with continued positive intent we can secure a resolution that sees devolved government resumed.

I welcome that answer from my right hon. Friend, just as I welcome the economic success story that is the Northern Irish economy over the past few years. Does he agree that a key part of that success has been effective, stable power-sharing government, which is another reason for all parties to resolve this situation as swiftly as possible?

I do recognise that, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight some of the important successes in the Northern Ireland economy. The labour market survey statistics that are out today show 56,000 more jobs since 2010 in Northern Ireland, which highlights what has been achieved and what can be achieved in future with a strong Executive in place.

I wish my right hon. Friend well in the discussions taking place in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that, whatever issues need to be overcome, devolved government within the UK remains by far and away the best option for Northern Ireland?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. The public voted overwhelmingly and clearly, with that increased turnout, for devolved government be put back in place, delivering for Northern Ireland, and I am determined to see that, too.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the result of the Assembly election demonstrates the desire of the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland for strong and stable devolved government?

Yes, I do. That stability is able to bring about further positive change in Northern Ireland, with further foreign direct investment and more jobs being created. That is what I strongly support, and I know that vision is also shared by the parties.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in all their discussions the Government will maintain their full support for the Belfast agreement and its successors, including, crucially, the principle that Northern Ireland’s position within the Union will always be determined by the principle of consent?

I am happy to confirm that. We stand four-square behind our commitments under the Belfast agreement, with the principle of consent being a firm part of that. I am also clear about the support that we see for the continuing institutions and structures, and giving effect to that.

13. May I offer my condolences to those who lost their lives this week, particularly those in the Irish Coast Guard, who do so much good work in the north, particularly in my constituency? Brexit is a crucial factor in the current political landscape in Northern Ireland and should be part of the ongoing talks process. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the issue of single status, where we do not go back to any borders of the past, is a feature of these talks? (909183)

I echo the hon. Lady’s comments about those who lost their lives. We recognise Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances—its economy, geography and history—and will ensure that they are properly taken into account as we prepare for EU exit. We want to ensure that those issues are properly reflected in the negotiations ahead so that we get the best possible deal for Northern Ireland.

What does the Secretary of State see as the greatest stumbling blocks in the current talks? How confident is he that a deal will be established by 27 March?

As I have indicated, I think a deal can be achieved with good will and a real sense of urgency in the discussions ahead. Issues still need to be overcome, and as I have already said, it would not be constructive to provide a running narrative. I urge people to continue to engage and to be involved in those intensive talks, because that is how we will get a positive result.

I too express my condolences to the family of my constituent Mr Gilmore, who was murdered by paramilitaries this week. Given the attitude Sinn Féin have adopted regarding whom they will accept as First Minister, the role of the Secretary of State in talks and their desire to have soldiers and policemen prosecuted in the courts, does the Secretary of State believe there is much chance of success in the talks? If not, will he move quickly to fill the budget gap left by the Sinn Féin Finance Minister?

This remains doable—that is the important message we need to underline. Yes, of course, time is short, and yes, there is a range of issues that still need to be discussed and agreed on, but there is need for positive intent on all sides, which will be the best way to get the right outcome.

Order. These are extremely serious matters affecting Northern Ireland, the people of which might think it a tad discourteous if we do not have an attentive hearing for colleagues. Let us have an attentive hearing for Theresa Villiers.

The Government and the police have disclosed unprecedented amounts of information about the troubles, some of it extremely sensitive. Does the Secretary of State agree that some information is so sensitive that it can never go into the public domain because if it did, it would put lives at risk?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. With all her experience as the previous Secretary of State, she knows the sensitivity and importance of issues of national security, which remains the primary responsibility of the UK Government. In our actions, we will certainly continue to have that at the forefront of our mind.

D’Hondt System

I take it that reaction was not for me.

The use of the d’Hondt system is a stipulation of the Belfast agreement, as it ensures cross-community representation in the Executive. The Government are committed to upholding Northern Ireland’s constitutional settlement, as outlined in the Belfast agreement and its successors.

The priority must of course be to persuade all the parties back into government in Northern Ireland to avoid the prospect of direct rule. Given the recent instability, in the longer term is it worth having a discussion about a new form of government involving a Government and an Opposition?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, but we are not considering a review at this moment in time. What is important now is to help the parties to come back together and form an Executive, and that is the Government’s focus.

Does the Minister agree that, as the talks develop over the next few weeks, a likely consensus is going to emerge around the Stormont House agreement and all the contents therein? We should base progress, and hopefully agreement, on that, rather than on wish lists with no chance of success.

It would be appropriate to build around the common consensus that is currently out there. There have already been agreements on Stormont House, so obviously that should be the centre point of the current talks.


Tourism in Northern Ireland currently generates a revenue of £764 million and attracts 4.5 million visitors a year. In the light of Brexit, what steps will be taken in partnership to ensure that even further tourist growth is delivered?

We have a commitment to an industrial strategy, engagement with all sectors in Northern Ireland, and additional funding of some £600 million a year for the GREAT Britain campaign.

14. Does the Secretary of State accept that tourism has the potential to make an even more significant contribution to the Northern Ireland economy, particularly in deprived rural areas? Will he take steps to ensure that adequate resources are invested in the Northern Ireland tourist board and in Tourism Ireland to ensure that we have a product and that we market it? (909184)

Just last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor committed additional money to funding in Northern Ireland. There is a responsibility to get the Executive back to offer leadership in this matter. I urge every Member in this House to visit Northern Ireland—take a weekend break—as it is an amazing place to visit.

Operation Banner

8. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the provision of legal protection to veterans of the armed forces who served in Northern Ireland under Operation Banner. (909178)

This Government are unstinting in our admiration for the role that our armed forces have played in Northern Ireland in securing democracy and consent. The current process for addressing the past is not working, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, and we will ensure that the new legacy bodies will be under legal obligations to be fair, balanced and proportionate. [Interruption.]

Given the scrapping of the Iraq inquiries and the judgment today in the case of Alexander Blackman, is it not time that the Government provided legal protection to the men and women who serve this country on the frontline?

This Government never move away from their obligation to care for their veterans. We have put in huge resources to do that. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very passionate about looking after our armed forces personnel. I am more than happy to meet him to discuss this matter further.