With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on recent events in Northern Ireland.
Since the Northern Ireland Assembly election on 2 March, I have been engaged in intensive talks with the political parties and the Irish Government, in line with the well established three-stranded approach. There has been one clear purpose: to re-establish an inclusive devolved Administration at Stormont, in accordance with the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors.
Progress has been made on a number of issues, including on a budget, a programme for government, and ways of improving transparency and accountability. We have seen further steps forward on agreeing a way to implement the Stormont House agreement legacy bodies to help to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors of the troubles. In addition, progress was made on how the parties might come together to represent Northern Ireland in our negotiations to leave the EU, which is so important in the context of article 50 being triggered tomorrow. That said, it is clear that significant gaps remain between the parties, particularly over issues surrounding culture and identity. Throughout the process, the Government have been active in making positive proposals to try to bridge those gaps and help the parties to move things forward.
In law, the period allowed to form an Executive is 14 days from the date of the first sitting of the Assembly after an election. That 14-day period expired at 4 pm yesterday with no agreement, and therefore no Executive. This is a source of deep disappointment and regret to me and many others, and I know that there is widespread dismay throughout the country. From all my extensive engagement across Northern Ireland with business, civil society and members of the public, I am in no doubt that inclusive devolved government is what the overwhelming majority of the people want to see, working for them, delivering on their priorities, and continuing the positive progress we have seen in Northern Ireland over recent years. They want to see devolved institutions up and running and serving the whole community. Yet following the passing of yesterday’s legal deadline, Northern Ireland has no devolved Administration. That also means that other elements of the Belfast agreement, including the north-south bodies, cannot operate properly. The consequences of all of this are potentially extremely serious, the most immediate of which is the fact that we are rapidly approaching the point at which Northern Ireland will not have an agreed budget.
From tomorrow, a civil servant, the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance, will exercise powers to allocate cash to Northern Ireland Departments. This is an interim measure designed to ensure that services are maintained until such time as a budget is agreed. We are keeping in close contact with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service on these matters, and I understand that the Department of Finance will be setting out more details later today.
Let me be very clear: this situation is not sustainable and, beyond a short period of time, it will impact on public services such as the health service, schools, voluntary groups and services for the most vulnerable in society. That is not what people voted for on 2 March. During the course of the past 24 hours, I have spoken to the leaders of the five main Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government. I am encouraged that there remains a strong willingness to continue engaging in dialogue with a view to resolving outstanding issues and forming an Executive, and that must absolutely remain the priority. However, the window of opportunity is short. It is essential, therefore, that the intensity of discussions is stepped up with renewed intent and focus. A positive outcome remains possible.
To that end, I will, over the coming days, continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government as appropriate, and I will need to keep the situation under close review. If those talks are successful, it would be my intention, quickly, to bring forward legislation after the Easter recess to allow an Executive to be formed, avoiding a second Assembly election for which I detect little public appetite.
I am also determined to take forward the legacy bodies in the Stormont House agreement in accordance with our manifesto commitments, and I will be involving a range of interested parties, including the Victims’ Commissioner. In the absence of devolved government, it is ultimately for the United Kingdom Government to provide for political stability and good governance. We do not want to see a return to direct rule. Our manifesto at the last election stated that
“local policies and services should be determined by locally elected politicians through locally accountable institutions.”
Should the talks not succeed in their objectives, the Government will have to consider all options. I therefore want to give the House notice that, following the Easter recess, as a minimum it would be my intention to bring forward legislation to set a regional rate to enable local councils to carry out their functions and to provide further assurance around the budget for Northern Ireland.
It is vital that devolved government—and all the institutions under the successive agreements—is returned to Northern Ireland as soon as possible, and the Government’s unrelenting focus is on achieving that objective. Northern Ireland needs strong devolved government to deliver for teachers, doctors and nurses, businesses, industry and the wider community and to ensure that it plays a full role in the affairs of our United Kingdom, while retaining its strong relationship with Ireland. It must continue the work of the past two decades to build a stronger, peaceful and prosperous future for all. That needs to be the focus of everyone as we approach the crucial next few days and weeks. I commend this statement to the House.
I would like to take this opportunity to send my condolences to the family of PC Keith Palmer, who gave his life in the protection of all who work in this building.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement. Things have changed dramatically since he last gave a statement to this House and called an election. The result of that election reflects the real worry on the ground that the political institutions—not just at Stormont, but at Westminster and the Dáil—have not delivered in the way the public expect. We need a significant change in direction that includes both Governments as well as the parties on the ground. The Irish Government must have more direct engagement. They are not just interested observers, but the co-guarantors of an internationally endorsed agreement that brought to an end the sad episode in the story of these islands. We need direct and continuing intervention from representatives of the Irish Government.
This House must end the hands-off, “Let them get on with it”, “It’s all done and dusted” attitude that prevailed under the Cameron-led Governments. We need the Prime Minister to show greater leadership and encouragement in the process, and to show all in Northern Ireland that the Government want to make this work. The people of Northern Ireland have spoken, and they have said very clearly that there are no longer any minorities in the place that they call home. They want to be treated fairly and equitably. They demand that we—the political classes—get our act together now, and move forward on things pledged to them many years ago. Failure to do so is fraught with danger.
As the Secretary of State said, the budget has not been signed off, and that could soon start to have an impact on the day-to-day lives of businesses and the general public. It is not fair to expect the Northern Ireland Office to run Northern Ireland again. Brexit negotiations in Northern Ireland are the most sensitive of all parts of the United Kingdom. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s lead negotiator, has identified the implications for the peace process as one of the three main priorities for him entering these negotiations, but we do not even have properly elected spokespeople attending the talks under the Joint Ministerial Committee.
In the background to all this is the worry that any vacuum could be filled by those who prefer the bullet to the ballot box. We all have a stake in this process. We cannot turn our backs on the situation, as many advocated through the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s. Our collective future is at stake, and nothing should get in the way. The parties on the ground need to take a long, hard look at themselves, and stop saying, “This is what we want”—no matter how legitimate they believe those demands to be—and start saying, “What can we give to move forwards?” It is not easy, but it is the only chance we have to resolve this.
I have not even mentioned the farce that was the final straw in Northern Ireland: the debacle of the renewable heat initiative. Will the Secretary of State look at whether the financial burden placed on the people of Northern Ireland by this failure is limited and reasonable? None of us envies him, or the job he faces. We all want this to succeed and we should use all avenues to reach that goal. To that end, I have some questions. Will the Secretary of State consider whether external support would help to reach an agreement? History tells us that this is sometimes necessary. I can assure him that recent talks with good friends of the peace process from the USA show that they remain ready to help at any time. Will he ensure that the Irish Government have hands-on involvement in the talks, and that the Prime Minister is fully engaged in the process? History has shown us the real difference that that can make. Will he ensure that, unlike so far, multilateral all-party talks are set up as soon as possible in the coming days?
I said earlier that no one wants this to fail, and that is especially true of my party. We have a great deal invested in this process and we do not want it to collapse. Hopefully, we can all use all our efforts to reach a deal as soon as possible. This process has to be built on partnership, genuine compromise and consensus if we are to build up faith and confidence not just in the institutions, but, much more importantly, across the whole the population of Northern Ireland. That cannot be done unless politicians on all sides are prepared to move from their entrenched positions.
This is not just abstract debate for me. For the 12 years from 1993, I had the great privilege to represent 30,000 public sector workers in Northern Ireland. Many had spent years cleaning up the fallout of the actions of failed politicians and terrorists: the ambulance personnel ignoring the risks to their lives to save the lives of others; the nurses dealing with the mutilated, traumatised and dying; the porters dealing, at the sharp end, with the follow-through from yet another sectarian shooting; the social workers dealing with the bereaved, those suffering from addiction and those who were simply lost; the housing officers trying desperately to find homes for those who were burned or bombed out simply because of their religion; and the community workers trying to convince young men and women facing a life on the dole that putting on a balaclava and picking up a gun was not the way forward. It is these people and their kids who we are letting down. Every time we say, “No”, “We can’t” or “We won’t”, we betray the trust they put in us that we had put all that behind us. These people did their duty. It is time for us all to do ours.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his clear comments on what is at stake. Yes, this is about those very individuals he spoke to in the last part of his contribution—those in the health service and in education—and the progress in Northern Ireland that we have seen in such a positive and constructive way. We all have that shared determination and commitment to ensure that that progress continues, and that young people growing up in Northern Ireland can look to that future with a strong, positive intent of fulfilling their dreams, ambitions, aspirations and hopes. We can all agree on that message as we look to the days ahead.
The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions on the process, but I should tell him that there is no hands-off role for the Government in relation to Northern Ireland. We take our responsibilities very seriously in relation to political stability and governance, and, fundamentally, to that sense of devolved government serving the people of Northern Ireland. That is profoundly what we want to be restored at the earliest opportunity.
On the various different roles of people and organisations, I can say to the hon. Gentleman that the Irish Government have been actively involved over the last days. I pay tribute to the work of Charlie Flanagan, the Irish Foreign Minister, who has worked alongside me, consistent with the three-stranded approach that governs these discussions and the framework. He has played an extremely important part, and has underlined the Irish Government’s continued support for the restoration of the devolved Administration, and for the broader institutions set out in the Belfast agreement and its successors functioning effectively and properly—the devolved Government sit at the heart of seeing that structure fulfilling its intent.
The Prime Minister has been fully engaged in the process and remains so. She has had a number of conversations with the Taoiseach. I have kept her very closely informed and she has very much been there, understanding the need to see progress and supporting the process. She will continue to do so.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted the issue of others providing support. The important thing to recognise is that, fundamentally, this is about the parties themselves coming together and devolved elements of agreement. Therefore, the scope for what outside partners can support and achieve is limited. It is important in that context to consider the issues, and how best we can find that way forward and that positive outcome.
Yes, we are considering the intensification and the strengthening of the process, working with the parties. I will continue to discuss that with the parties in the immediate hours and days ahead to ensure that we have the process in place to get the positive outcome that they have said they want—they want that return to devolved government, and they want an Executive performing for the people of Northern Ireland. We need to support and galvanise them in that work and give them all assistance to achieve that outcome. That is what the House would endorse, and that is the work that the Government intend to bring about.
Order. In an attempt to accommodate the extensive interest in this subject, I appeal to colleagues to ask brief questions without long preamble, and to the Secretary of State to offer us characteristically pithy replies.
I thank the Secretary of State for supplying an advance copy of his statement, and for engaging with me as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee regularly during the process.
When people turned out to vote in greater numbers, they expected politicians and not civil servants to run affairs in Northern Ireland. Given the way we are going, could those people be forgiven for becoming disillusioned with the whole process of devolution if we are not careful? Should we not therefore remind all the parties in Northern Ireland that power sharing means working with people they do not like, and accepting decisions that they would not automatically choose? If they do not do that, power sharing will not have a future.
My hon. Friend, in his characteristic way, has set out the challenges. I commend him and the Select Committee for their work in supporting our activity. I have appreciated the conversations I have had with him in recent days. Yes, there is a great deal at stake. It is about the parties recognising that need to reach out, which they have demonstrated in the past, and our providing that context and ability for them to do so, in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving us advance sight of his statement.
I pay tribute to Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley for the work they did in advancing devolution. That contribution was and remains important.
Given that the negotiating position seemed to be set in granite at the start of the process, it is perhaps little surprise that there has been little movement. It appears to have moved from stalemate through deadlock to impasse without ever giving any appearance of compromise. Given that the two major parties appear to have enough cold shoulder left over comfortably to see them through the small window of opportunity to which the Secretary of State referred, is it time to consider other options? There appears to be a presumption against having another election, but that would seem to be where the process is headed. What preparations is he making for that new election?
Considering that the election would come in the middle of the early Brexit negotiations, what measures is the Secretary of State discussing that will allow Northern Ireland’s politicians to play a proper part? Has he discussed with the Prime Minister the possibility of delaying the article 50 trigger? Given how Scotland has been treated over article 50, I would advise anyone against holding their breath on that.
In the longer term, is it time to revisit the principles of power sharing and look once again at whether the two largest parties should be able to hold the whole legislature in lockdown, as they are doing? Perhaps it is time to allow Stormont to set its own rules on forming the Executive.
Finally, what consideration is being given to curtailing salary spend on politicians in a legislature that is not sitting?
I will quickly run through some of the points the hon. Lady makes. There is no intent to trigger article 50 late—that remains absolutely on course—but her point about engaging people across Northern Ireland in the process is an important one. I have been talking to businesses and communities to ensure that that voice is recognised and understood. That will continue, but it will be much more powerful to have that Executive in place, articulating those views and making the case for Northern Ireland.
On the point the hon. Lady made at the outset of her question, I recognise the contribution of those who went before. In looking to the future, we need to reflect on the progress that has been made.
The hon. Lady spoke about an election. Options remain open, but there is no public appetite, and I do not discern any broader appetite, for another election, given that we had one just over three weeks ago. Therefore, the focus needs to be on getting agreement and that positive outcome, and getting devolved government back on its feet. That is the focus of work ahead.
None of us in this House should underestimate how incredibly difficult it is for Northern Ireland’s leaders to find common ground on issues such as legacy and identity, which have been the cause of tension and division for decades, but does the Secretary of State agree that, if they can find a way to bridge those last divisions, they will have the gratitude and support of the vast majority in Northern Ireland, who want devolution to work and play its part in moving Northern Ireland forward towards a brighter and better future?
I absolutely agree, and I recognise and commend my right hon. Friend for the contribution she has made in that process. Yes, there are issues of legacy and identity, which have been hugely challenging over so many years, but I strongly discern that the will and commitment are there to find the way forward. As she rightly said, that would have such an impact on generations to come.
Yesterday, the Democratic Unionist party was at Stormont, ready and willing, along with other parties, to set up the Executive. Neither during the election, previously nor now have we set preconditions or set down red lines. We made the Executive work until November, and we are determined to continue to try to make devolution work, because we need a budget and functioning devolution. When Sinn Féin walked away and collapsed the Executive in January, it left us without that budget and a functioning Executive at a very challenging time. It did the same yesterday. While we are determined to create the conditions for devolution and we want to make it work in partnership with Sinn Féin and others, we need a willing partner that will work realistically within the parameters of a Northern Ireland with devolved government, within the United Kingdom but within the institutions as agreed, and with Brexit a reality. Some of us fear that Sinn Féin has now decided that the time for devolution is over and that it is moving on to a different phase, where its main ambitions lie southwards.
I welcome the statement the right hon. Gentleman has just made of his party’s commitment to continue to engage and work to see devolved government get back on its feet, and that is an important point to underline as we look to the days ahead. Yes, there is a real challenge with the budget, and that is why I made the comments that I did in my statement. We need to continue the dialogue to give effect to what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and I would certainly encourage him to maintain that focus and that progress. A positive outcome is absolutely attainable, and we all feel a duty to ensure that we reach that positive outcome and create an Executive that deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his measured and balanced statement and for the manner in which he has conducted the negotiations so far—we all know this is not easy. He is absolutely right to say that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, and the vast majority of Members of this House, want to see these institutions up and running and the Executive formed from the elected Members. Does he agree that one measure that could put pressure on the parties to come back to the talks and that might crystallise minds would be to make it clear that, should the elected Members not form the Executive after a lengthy period of negotiation, their salaries and expenses will not be paid from the public purse?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s contribution and his work. We will be keeping all options under consideration, but the focus has to be on looking to the positive—looking to the outcome that sees parties coming together and getting devolved government back on its feet at the earliest opportunity, because that is what people voted for.
I share the frustration at the lack of progress in forming an Administration, but, as my noble Friend Lord Alderdice has observed, the absence of an Administration should not be a barrier to having a functioning Assembly, which is more important now than ever. If the renewable heat incentive issue remains a barrier to progress, will the Secretary of State use his best offices to ensure that Judge Coghlin’s inquiry comes to the earliest possible conclusion and that we do not have to wait six months to see its outcome?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the RHI inquiry is now up and running and starting to take effect, and everyone wants to see the answers and conclusions from it at the earliest opportunity. It obviously crystallises a lot of the situation we find ourselves in at the moment, and it is important that it reports as soon as possible. Obviously, public inquiries set their own timeline, procedures and processes, but the right hon. Gentleman powerfully makes his point about the need to see the inquiry’s conclusions and to ensure we move things on and are demonstrably seen to do so.
Because of its bloody recent history, Northern Ireland has earned the absolute right to have a decent future. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a solution to the current impasse is crucial to the economic and social, as well as the political, welfare of the children of Northern Ireland, most, if not all, of whom never knew the dark days of the last third of the 20th century?
Yes, I do agree on the positive outcome we should be looking for for young people growing up in Northern Ireland at the moment. That is what the Government should be delivering on—fulfilling those young people’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. We have seen increases in employment and prosperity in Northern Ireland, and that is at the heart of what everyone would want to see continuing.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He says progress was made on how the parties might come together to represent Northern Ireland in negotiations to leave the EU. Does he accept that the impact on Northern Ireland of leaving the EU was a key issue in creating instability and in the election but a peripheral issue in the talks, and it must be addressed directly and urgently? Can he tell us exactly what progress was made in the talks, and where progress sits today? Will he immediately convene the first roundtable talks—my understanding is that there has not been a roundtable of all the parties—to establish a common approach and a strategy for Northern Ireland, as many of us see the country plunging over the cliff of sanity on the European issue?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment in relation to the European Union and the steps that lie ahead. Again, I underline my sense of continued engagement and focus in ensuring that the voice of Northern Ireland continues to be heard and helps to shape the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland as we look to our departure from the EU. The hon. Gentleman speaks about the process moving forward, and I can assure him of the focus on intensification and on seeing that we get a more inclusive approach to the talks ahead, because that will provide the strongest possible foundations in getting that positive outcome and getting the Executive back on their feet again.
With article 50 to be triggered in the next 24 hours, and the impact of that on Northern Ireland being quite significant, will the Secretary of State outline what representations have been made on behalf of Northern Ireland at the Joint Ministerial Council so that the people of Northern Ireland are not left behind in the Brexit negotiations?
My hon. Friend properly highlights the role the Executive have played to date, and I would again point to the joint letter signed by the then First and Deputy First Ministers about the priorities for Northern Ireland, which has helped to shape our response and thoughts on this issue. Yes, there are significant issues in respect of the border, and there are other issues, such as the single electricity market and agrifoods. There is a range of issues that the Executive have underlined, and those have been very much in our thoughts as we prepare for the days ahead.
How will the talks to come be different from the talks we have had so far? What fresh initiatives is the Secretary of State proposing, and will one of them be to get the Prime Minister to Belfast as soon as possible and to involve the Taoiseach as well?
I outlined the fact that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have been involved in this process. The two have mandated Charlie Flanagan and me to lead the work on their behalf. When we look at the issues that are relevant to the parties coming together in that devolved space, we see it is about how we support them to get a positive outcome. I have already spoken about the intensification and the inclusive nature of the talks, and that is precisely the approach I will be taking alongside the Irish Government and Charlie Flanagan, the Irish Foreign Minister, to achieve that outcome. The Government have the absolute intent to do all we can to get devolved government back on its feet again, and we will do our utmost to achieve that which can be done.
Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment to ignore the siren song we are hearing from the Opposition about dragging the Prime Minister to Northern Ireland? It would be perverse, would it not, to reward intransigence on the part of some political parties in Northern Ireland by having the Prime Minister pulled across to the Province on a tight leash?
It is important that we keep focused on the issues at hand, which are about the parties coming together and finding a resolution to the issues that sit very firmly within the devolved space, and the work that we can do as the UK Government to support them alongside, appropriately, the Irish Government too. That remains our absolute focus. I believe that a positive outcome can be achieved with good will and with good spirit, and that is the environment we are determined to secure.
It is good to hear the Secretary of State speaking of an inclusive devolved Government. However, since the St Andrews agreement we have had a bit for one side, a bit for the other, and it has been polarisation all the way through. We need to go back to the spirit of the Belfast agreement whereby people worked together to find the way forward on health and education. Will he look at a new way forward that gets all of us working together on a voluntary foundation—something different from doing the same thing again and again?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised on a number of occasions this point about the nature of the devolved settlement and the legal structures that are in place. There may well be the scope, in due time, to have that wider debate, but at the moment we are about the here and now—about getting the devolved Government back up on their feet again and seeing parties engaging in such a way that an Executive can be formed under the current structure. That needs to be where our focus lies.
In supporting and sharing the vision that my right hon. Friend so passionately advocates, may I bring him back to the previous question and suggest that if intransigence continues for long enough, there may come a point for some fresh thinking, and that local government in Northern Ireland, to which he briefly alluded at the end of his statement, might play a larger role?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about the role of local government, which has continued to make progress and is fulfilling increasing responsibilities. I am sure that over time that should be encouraged further. However, it is now about getting the Executive in place to be able to support this work, and that is where all our efforts must lie in the short term.
Political engagement, power sharing and partnership government, working on an all-Ireland basis, are vital for the future of Northern Ireland in order to deal with the issues presented to us by Brexit. What steps are being taken to secure the presence of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach at such talks? What is the format and timescale for such talks, which will hopefully break the logjam and bring people together in a spirit of power-sharing government?
The hon. Lady is talking about Brexit and the EU. There have been discussions between the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister in relation to those very issues, recognising that Brexit will have an impact across the island of Ireland. We can point to various different areas where we have shared commitments with the Irish Government in that regard. This is about getting the parties back around the table and looking at ways of bridging the gaps. We are determined to support that in every way we can to get a positive response.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that the solution to this latest impasse is not more money from Westminster?
I would point to the fact that in the last Budget the Chancellor announced an extra £120 million for Northern Ireland’s priorities, and obviously we will want to see an Executive in place to be able to use that money effectively.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the people of Northern Ireland deserve better from their political leaders? The institutions have teetered on the brink for years, and now they have collapsed. The formula to prevent that from happening was clear: it was for the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Taoiseach and representatives of the United States Administration to work hand in glove with Northern Ireland’s politicians to prevent the collapse of these institutions. Why does the Secretary of State not understand that he alone does not have the necessary authority to resolve these issues?
I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. Again, I underline the issues that are at stake in relation to the parties and the devolved elements. I can assure him of the seriousness and significance that we attach to the position we now find ourselves in, with the whole issue of getting devolved government back on its feet and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland—all the things that so many have mentioned in this Chamber this afternoon about the future and what that means for real people and for public services. It is therefore with renewed intent that we approach the short period ahead in order to get the consensus and build the bridges that need to be built to get a positive outcome. That is the resolve that this Government have shown and will continue to show to deliver for Northern Ireland.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that England, Wales and Scotland have limits on expenditure for political purposes but that there are little or none for Northern Ireland? Could these limits be extended to Northern Ireland?
I am sure that we can look to a range of measures for elections. One of the issues is having greater transparency in political donations—something that has been at the forefront of some of the discussions that have taken place over the past three weeks. I earnestly want to see progress made in that regard.
As a party, we have found the Prime Minister to be very engaged in this progress. I do not know what others are complaining about. I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment on legacy, but it is essential that he does not take a partial approach. We do not want to see money given over for legacy inquests and no progress made on the historical investigations unit. If that happens, we will withdraw our support for his proposals.
It is important that we deliver for all victims. That has been the consistent approach of this Government in wanting to see, yes, reform of legacy inquests, but also progress made on establishing the Stormont House institutions, because there are families, survivors and victims who are still living this, day in, day out, and we have a duty to them to have a comprehensive approach that provides a way forward for all of them. That earnestly remains my intent.
My right hon. Friend has already said several times that there is very little appetite on the doorstep for another election so soon after the last one. Will he therefore explain to the residents of Northern Ireland what other tools in his arsenal he may be considering to get agreement without the need to call a second election?
As I indicated in my statement, we are obviously focused on getting a positive outcome through a renewed talks process and legislating as necessary to enable an Executive to be put in place. As I have already said, I will keep all options under consideration, and therefore how we address some of the immediate short-term issues in relation to the budget and the regional rate is at the forefront of my mind.
As one of the last direct rule Ministers for Northern Ireland, may I remind the Secretary of State that managing five Departments from Westminster is not a good form of government? History shows that when the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach engage with matters of crisis—when they clear their diaries and spend four or five days engaged with those issues—crises are solved. Will he reflect on that as he determines not to have direct rule?
As I have already indicated, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are actively involved. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s view of direct rule. We do not want to contemplate this, because I see it as a step backwards, not a step forward. That is why we must all redouble our efforts to get the positive outcome, get the agreement between the parties, and see an Executive formed.
What processes have been put in place with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service to ensure that local public services have the funding that they need in the weeks ahead?
We have been working very closely with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, Sir Malcolm McKibbin, as he works with his own Departments to ensure that the appropriate resources are in place. As I indicated in my statement, the reserve statutory provisions will be used to ensure that Departments have the money to maintain public services, but that can only be in place for a relatively short period, and the need to have political direction in place to set the priorities remains urgent. That is why the work ahead is such a significant priority for all of us.
Sitting as an independent Member, I am a very interested participant in, and bystander to, these talks. From my experience of past negotiations, I think it could be really important, at this crucial stage, for the Government to try to change the dynamics of the talks. There is no point in heading into them with the same repeated arguments.
Will the Secretary of State give serious consideration to bringing back to Northern Ireland a senior American diplomat, who is well known to all the parties, so that she can chair the talks? Her name is Barbara Stephenson. I have not spoken to her about this—she is being volunteered without her knowledge—but it strikes me that she was the American consul in Belfast for a long time, and she is well known to the parties and highly regarded in Northern Ireland.
I have met Barbara Stephenson. The issues in question relate primarily to strand 1 of the Good Friday agreement structure. In previous discussions and talks, outside parties have never been directly engaged in those strand 1 issues. Although obviously we will maintain contact with all interested parties, that is where the focus lies and where the UK Government have primacy and priority. Of course we will engage in all sorts of different ways, but this is about how we build bridges between the parties. I look forward to discussing some of the issues with the hon. Lady, perhaps outside the House, where she may be able to share more of her thoughts.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lasting image of the funeral of Martin McGuinness was that of Arlene Foster in a Roman Catholic church, with a coffin draped in the flag of the Republic, paying tribute to the body of the leader of the IRA who had attempted to kill her father? Will my right hon. Friend urge all parties in Northern Ireland to show similar acts of bravery—personal bravery—to restart the peace process?
That event was a powerful way for so many people to demonstrate a sense of reaching out and the need for all of us to reflect on some of the bigger issues at stake in Northern Ireland. Equally, Sinn Féin has shown symbolism in different ways over the years, too. Looking at the bigger picture and to the future—the shared, inclusive future—of Northern Ireland is at the heart of the solution. I hope that that spirit will be maintained and strengthened in the days ahead, such that we are able to get a positive conclusion.
Opposition Members only ever want to support the Government in their efforts to bring a resolution to these matters. In that spirit I gently say to the Secretary of State that the perceived laissez-faire approach of the Prime Minister does him no favours. The Prime Minister was in Wales last week and in Scotland this week. She should go to Northern Ireland with the Taoiseach, convene these talks and find a resolution sooner rather than later.
I respect the way in which the hon. Gentleman made his point, but I do not accept his characterisation of a laissez-faire approach. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have been actively engaged in this and will continue to be so. As a Government we will do all we can to get the positive outcome that I know the hon. Gentleman earnestly wants to see, in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
I am sure that the Secretary of State shares my view that if the solution needed were as simplistic as the Prime Minister getting on a plane, that would already have happened. Will he reassure me that what we will not allow is for one party, in particular Sinn Féin, to use elements of the UK security forces and historical inquiries as bargaining chips and hold them hostage in the negotiation process?
As a Government we have a primary responsibility in relation to national security, and that is a responsibility that I feel very keenly. We need to achieve a way forward for the investigations of the past. We have made comprehensive proposals that I want to see emerging into a broader public debate. That is my earnest intention and I believe it can be achieved in the weeks ahead.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that Sinn Féin’s refusal to accept his legitimate role in these negotiations has led to a protracted process; that its refusal to have roundtable meetings with all the parties has meant that only its agenda is being pursued; and that its demand that, when dealing with the past, the focus should be on the security forces, rather than on the murders for which it has been responsible in Northern Ireland, illustrates that it had no intention of reaching an agreement or coming to any compromise? It simply wishes to pursue its own agenda, to the cost of people in Northern Ireland, who are being denied devolution.
I am clear that we need a fair, balanced, proportionate and comprehensive approach to those issues of the past, and I think that the Stormont House agreement allows us to find the way to achieve that, as well as other reforms. I have spoken about that to the Victims’ Commissioner and others over many weeks, and we will continue to re-energise that process. What we need is that intensification of the talks, that sense of good will and a real intent to see devolved government back up on its feet again. All the parties have publicly stated their intent to seek that outcome, and we must do all that we can to create the environment where that can succeed and where we can get the inclusive, devolved Government that will serve the people of Northern Ireland and for which they voted.
We all want a bright future for Northern Ireland, and I wish all parties well in the continuing talks to achieve a fully functioning Executive. Can more be done to ensure that there is representation for Northern Ireland in the Brexit process, given the current circumstances?
The obvious answer is that we can achieve that by getting an Executive in place who can advocate for Northern Ireland and ensure that its voice is heard not only by the UK Government, but in Europe directly. I will continue to do my work by going out into communities, listening to business, to the community and to the voluntary sector, and doing my absolute utmost to ensure that, in my role and responsibilities, we get the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland in the Brexit talks ahead. I certainly believe that that is eminently achievable, and that is the work that I will continue to do.
I was a special adviser to the last Labour Government when direct rule was last introduced, and it took us four years to try to resolve that. The Secretary of State has said that he wants to intensify the talks, but he has failed to tell the House what he means by that. History shows that the engagement of the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister is the way to intensify those talks and bring about resolution. Will he explain why the Government are so resistant to taking that step?
The Government are focused on getting the best outcome from this, which is the return of devolved government. The hon. Gentleman makes his point powerfully about issues and risks relating to direct rule, which is why I have already said that they are profoundly not what we want to see, but obviously we are keeping all options under review. There is a sense of the work that the parties themselves can do. The two Governments can play a part in that, which is what Charlie Flanagan, the Irish Foreign Minister, and I have been doing. We will continue to play an intensive part, but as I said in my statement, we need to move to a new phase and see the work of the parties come together in a more inclusive way. I have been talking to the parties already as to how we achieve that, and we will see that progress in the days ahead.
Legacy has been mentioned, as has history, but will the Secretary of State confirm that he will stand firm on the attempts by republicans to rewrite the past and the history of Northern Ireland?
It is important that we get a fair, balanced, proportionate and equitable outcome from the systems that we put in place, and that we recognise what happened in the past. That is why we proposed the setting up of, for example, an oral history archive, for people to be able to give their testimony and share their experiences. It is through that comprehensive approach that I believe progress will be made and that Northern Ireland will look to its future rather than its past.
As someone who grew up on the Leitrim-Fermanagh border for large periods during the 1970s and ’80s, I worry that a generation is growing up who have forgotten what political violence and a hard border look like. Most change has come about when Prime Ministers have invested sufficient political capital in the process, but we have not seen any Prime Minister do that since Major and Blair. We need to get the Prime Minister over there as soon as possible to negotiate with all the parties.
I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis or the approach that he advocates. The Prime Minister has been, and will continue to be, actively engaged in the process. The UK and Irish Governments feel that they have a shared responsibility on the matter, and that informs our approach. We desire to see a devolved Government back up on their feet again, delivering for Northern Ireland, because that is what people want. It is our absolute intention to ensure that that is brought about.
Notwithstanding your stress on the constraints of brevity, Mr Speaker, I want to take this opportunity, as MP for Foyle, to pay proper tribute to the late Martin McGuinness, with whom and against whom I worked for well over three decades in all sorts of contexts and roles. As his predecessor as Deputy First Minister, as a former colleague in the Government and as a counterpart in the negotiations, I would say that he was someone who went from opposing the very concept of the institutions in which he went on to serve to demonstrating a remarkable capacity for outreach and acknowledgment using those shared offices. He proved not just his own better character, in the democratic context, but the transformative value of the institutions that we are talking about.
The Secretary of State has indicated that legislation may be introduced after the Easter recess. Is he deliberately precluding the possibility of such legislation rectifying the defects in how the First and Deputy First Ministers are appointed—that process no longer conforms to what was laid down in the Good Friday agreement— or, indeed, rectifying the problems with the petition of concern, which has never operated consistently with what was laid down in paragraphs 11 to 13 of the Good Friday Agreement?
Questions about governance have formed part of the talks that have taken place over recent weeks. The hon. Gentleman highlights the petition of concern, and other issues were also discussed. With the legislation, my focus is on serving the people of Northern Ireland, where public services are challenged as a consequence of the budgetary issues that they face. I intend to deal with that in the legislation that will have to be introduced after the Easter recess. Fundamentally, this is about ensuring that the parties achieve an agreement, and the legislation will give us the opportunity to effect any legislative changes that may flow from the requirements of that agreement. That is why we need to use the few short weeks ahead to get an agreement such that an Executive can be returned to Northern Ireland, to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State talks of a new phase, yet he appears very reluctant to consider a more direct and active role for the Prime Minister in moving things to a conclusion. Will he set out why there is such reluctance to involve the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach directly in the talks to try to bring things to a conclusion? Surely, their involvement would make agreement more likely.
Dealing with the current situation is a question of resolving the outstanding obstacles that have led to this impasse. Ultimately, the two parties need to come together to achieve the outcome that we all earnestly want to see, and I do not believe that the escalation that the hon. Lady suggests is the appropriate way to achieve that. We will continue to keep matters under review, but there are other ways in which we can provide intensification and encourage an inclusive approach. That is why I will continue to hold discussions with the parties and support them to bring that about.
I commend the Secretary of State for his strength of character and his leadership in the talks. Sinn Féin’s irresponsible actions have left Northern Ireland without an agreed budget, and staff of Departments and the Northern Ireland Assembly are in a precarious predicament when it comes to job security. There are also concerns in the community and voluntary sectors. If Sinn Féin continues to block the formation of the Executive, will the Secretary of State undertake to consult closely Members of this House who attend and participate in the Assembly about such decisions, and will he ensure that adequate funding is in place to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland?
I earnestly want to see a positive outcome from the current situation—the return of an inclusive devolved Executive, in which the principal parties deliver for Northern Ireland. I still believe that that outcome can be achieved but, as I indicated in my statement, the UK Government take their responsibility for governance and political stability hugely seriously. We will take all necessary actions, and we will continue to consult colleagues here and elsewhere about how that work is taken forward.
Attention has rightly been focused on the attacks in Westminster last Wednesday, but Members of the House will not forget the fact that police officers could have been murdered in Strabane; nor will they forget the attack and murder in Carrickfergus in recent weeks. What plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure that funding for the Police Service of Northern Ireland continues, whatever the outcome of the negotiations between the different parties in Northern Ireland?
The UK Government have committed additional funding, over and above the core funding provided to the PSNI from the Executive, in respect of national security and combating terrorism. The hon. Gentleman underlines the real challenges and risks that officers from the PSNI have faced over recent weeks and years in doing their duty to serve the public and provide safety and security. Events here have brought into stark focus the risks, challenges and personal issues involved, and I commend the security service and all agencies that do their utmost—sometimes quietly and sometimes out of sight—to deliver safety and security for the public in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin selfishly brought down the Executive for Northern Ireland at the start of the year, and on Sunday it selfishly blocked the restoration of the Executive, but the consequences of and penalty for that decision rest on the shoulders of everyone in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in looking at all the options open to him, he will consider proceeding with a voluntary coalition of the willing in Northern Ireland?
I still earnestly believe that an agreement between the parties can be achieved, and we must approach the days ahead with the intention of securing that positive outcome. The important thing is to build bridges and enable the DUP and Sinn Féin to create an Executive, and the UK Government approach the days ahead with that earnest endeavour and intent.
As I indicated in my statement, I feel very keenly our responsibility to serve the people of Northern Ireland and to ensure that they have public services that deliver for them. That underlying intent is firmly in my mind and it is why I believe that legislation will be necessary after the Easter recess to secure that outcome for the people of Northern Ireland.