I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Before I move forward with this business, I would like to pay tribute to those in the Police Service of Northern Ireland and in other emergency services who spent yesterday keeping people safe from a significant bomb placed by dissident republican terrorists next to a primary school in north Belfast. I am sickened by this incident, which has caused outrage in the community and far beyond. It is clear that the consequences could have been utterly devastating. Potentially to put children, the wider community and police officers in danger shows a wanton disregard for life. This shows these terrorists for who and what they really are, and is a potent reminder that they have nothing to offer.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the attempts this morning by the BBC to try somehow to justify what the terrorists did at the weekend on the basis that there had been no political progress shows the kind of banal reporting we get from the BBC? It is not worthy of a publicly funded body.
The hon. Gentleman has made his point in his own way. All I will say is that this was an appalling incident for which there was no justification whatsoever. I think the whole House would wish to pay tribute to the PSNI and all those agencies that do such an incredible job in seeking to provide security for Northern Ireland, for the risks that they often put themselves under as a consequence of that work and for the incredible contribution that they make.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is not enough for political parties and individuals to say that they support the rule of law? Surely it is incumbent on us all to support the individual officers who come from right across the community to serve all of the community. We should all be giving them our wholehearted support.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point about the incredible job that the PSNI does, the contribution that it makes and what that often means for its officers. I have a huge amount of respect for their professionalism and the personal dedication that they bring. I am sure the whole House would wish to underline that message of support for the incredible job that they do.
Moving on to the Bill, I have updated the House twice on the political situation in Northern Ireland in recent weeks: in my oral statement on 28 March and in my written ministerial statement last week. On both occasions, I set out that I would seek to bring forward legislation with two aims in mind: to provide the legal basis for an Executive to form, and to set a regional rate to enable that important source of revenue to be collected. As we approach the final week of this Parliament, now is the right time to deal with both those matters, in order to provide greater certainty for the people of Northern Ireland and to provide the opportunity for the parties to come together to secure the resumption of devolved government.
The background leading up to the introduction of the Bill will be familiar to many in the House. The collapse of the previous Executive in January placed a duty on me to set a date for a further election. I did so in January, and the election itself was held on 2 March. Since then, the UK Government have been engaged in talks with the political parties and, as appropriate, the Irish Government, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach. The talks have had one clear purpose: to re-establish an inclusive, devolved Administration in line with the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors. Progress was made on several fronts during that phase on the formation of an Executive, including the budget and programme for government.
There was progress on legacy, too. Constructive discussions took place with all the parties on the detail of the legacy institutions set out in the Stormont House agreement and on the need to reform legacy inquests. Although no one will underestimate the challenge of addressing the legacy of the past, the proposals are now sufficiently developed that the next step should be to publish them for consultation. That way, we can listen to the views of victims and survivors and all those who will be most affected by the proposed new institutions.
Despite the progress that was made, there remains a defined number of outstanding issues on which there is a lack of agreement between the parties, and it was clear that a period of reflection was necessary to give the impetus for the discussions to conclude positively. It was with that in mind that the talks were paused over Easter. Since then, meetings have continued between the parties. The restoration of devolved government remains achievable, and it remains the absolute priority. It will, though, require more time and more focused engagement by the parties on the critical issues that remain, building on the discussions over the past seven weeks. The Bill would provide the space, and the opportunity, for the parties to do just that. We will remove the current legal barriers so that the Assembly can meet and an Executive can be formed at any point from Royal Assent to 29 June—three weeks after the general election.
We recognise that there will be focus on the general election, which is why the Bill provides parties with the scope and space to continue discussions to resolve their outstanding issues, while providing a period of reflection for the new Government if a deal still does not prove possible. That said, it remains highly desirable for the parties to continue to work to make progress quickly for the reasons that I have set out, and this Bill does not preclude the formation of an Executive sooner if the parties wish that to happen. That is an important point. In passing this Bill, we make it clear that the responsibility now lies with the parties to come together and make progress, and as I have indicated, I strongly believe that that can still happen. We have removed the legal barrier to progress, enabling an Executive to form without the need for a further Assembly election. If the parties have the will to make progress between now and the end of June, the platform is in place for them to do just that. In the meantime, we should not lose sight of the benefits that an agreement would have for the people of Northern Ireland. I am sure that that will be the hope of those voters who gave the parties a mandate on 2 March.
I pay tribute to the Opposition for their constructive and positive engagement in the process leading up to the introduction of this Bill. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) who may be making his final appearance at the Dispatch Box as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Despite our broader political differences, I thank him for the overall support that he and his party have given me since I became Secretary of State in July. Northern Ireland undoubtedly benefits from the broadly bipartisan approach that we take in this House and, whatever the result of the general election, I hope that that will always continue. I wish him all the very, very best for the future. I know that his presence will be missed by many across this House who will wish him well in whatever new opportunities and new challenges he takes forward.
Moving to the substance of the Bill, clause 1 would remove the present legal barrier to an Executive being able to form to implement any deal that has been reached. It would retrospectively reset the 14-day clock in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which expired on 27 March, with a 108-day period, removing the present duty on me to set a date for an election, with it arising again at 4 pm on 29 June if an Executive have not been formed by that point. This will provide the space for an Executive to form, and makes it clear that the responsibility for progress lies with the parties—indeed that duty to form an Executive and appoint Ministers in that process. As necessary, it would provide a period for further talks in the new Parliament, allowing all sides to take stock and move forward if a deal is not already in place. It would also mean that, if a deal is not struck, there is a period for the new Government properly to consider the way forward. That is important. In the absence of a deal, significant decisions will need to be made in the new Parliament to provide political stability in Northern Ireland. However, it will be for the parties to seize the opportunity, whether in the coming weeks or soon after, to deliver the Executive that they have so clear a mandate to secure.
I have mentioned the two acute issues of financial uncertainty caused by the lack of an Executive. The first is the absence of a 2017-18 regional rate, which represents more than 5% of the total revenue available to the Northern Ireland Executive. Normally, this would have been set by the Department of Finance earlier this year, via an affirmative rates order in the Assembly. That would have enabled bills to be issued in 10 instalments, giving certainty to ratepayers and allowing various payment reliefs to be applied. However, time has nearly run out for that course. If no rate is set in the next few days, there will be fewer bills in higher instalments, and the longer it takes to set a rate, the worse that situation will become. The only outcome would be bad debt, lost revenue, uncertainty and hardship.
Although we are clear that this is a devolved matter, we are also clear that only the UK Government can take action to secure the interests of individuals, businesses and indeed the Executive. Clause 2 would address the issue by setting a 2017-18 regional rate in Northern Ireland. It does so by setting “pence per pound” rates for both domestic and non-domestic properties. These rates represent a 1.6% inflationary increase, the same approach as was taken by the Executive in setting a rate the year before. As we make clear in subsections (4) and (5), it would not cut across the continuing right of the Executive to set a rate by order in the usual way, so this would be the most limited step available to us, taken at a point beyond which we cannot delay.
The Secretary of State is outlining very well the business that this House may have to do and the business that he has to do today. But does he accept that we would not be in this place were it not for the arrogance of Sinn Féin, who walked away from the Executive and left Northern Ireland in the predicament we are in today?
What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that in the recent election a clear mandate was set for the resumption of an inclusive devolved Government in Northern Ireland, and the focus needs to lie on that, on getting the Executive back into position and on dealing with the differences between the parties in Northern Ireland. We should all feel a responsibility for seeing an Executive back in position, working to serve the best interests and needs of the people of Northern Ireland. Ultimately, that is where our absolute and resolute attention should lie.
For completeness, although it is not covered in the Bill, I should say that the second financial matter is the lack of a 2017-18 budget. Its absence has meant that since the beginning of this month civil servants alone have been in charge of allocating cash, which is clearly not an acceptable solution for the longer term. Before Easter, therefore, I made it clear that I would provide further assurance in that regard if an Executive were not in place, consistent with the UK Government’s ultimate responsibility for political stability in Northern Ireland, so I wish to take this opportunity to provide further clarity to people, businesses and public services in Northern Ireland.
We very much hope, as I have said, that we will see an Executive up and running as soon as possible, but if that does not prove possible, I want to put on record that this Government would be prepared, as a last resort, to pass an Appropriation Act in the next session to provide legislative authority for the expenditure of Northern Ireland Departments. That is not a step that any Government would take lightly, but this House must not forget the duties we must uphold for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State has identified a very important issue—the lack of a budget—but does he accept that even with the assurances he has given to the House today there are still tens of thousands of people in the voluntary and community sector who depend on money from Government Departments of which they cannot be assured at this stage, that their jobs are therefore in jeopardy and that they face uncertainty? The longer he leaves this decision, the more he leaves people in that sector of the economy in a vulnerable position.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland. I have very much had that sector at the front of my mind in publishing my written ministerial statement and in saying what I have this afternoon, knowing that some people have been put on protected notice and about the impact of uncertainty on whether payments will be continued beyond the current window. I know the civil service and Departments have already given assurances on funding for three months, but what further assurance can be given? By providing comfort to permanent secretaries through my written ministerial statement, I am advised that Departments will be able to extend current letters of comfort to give greater support and flexibility for the voluntary and community sector.
The broader point made by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) about the need for greater certainty and for a budget to be put in place is absolutely right. This is not a situation that can continue for much longer, which is why I have said what I have about the preparedness of this Government, if re-elected, to make steps to seek an Appropriation Bill should that prove necessary. As I have indicated, I earnestly hope that that will not prove necessary and that an Executive can and will be formed to make those decisions. In no way does the statement that I have made today cut across an Executive’s ability to take up position and set a budget in due course.
Flexibility is a key point in running the budget. Civil servants run their departments well with their budget, but those little bits of flexibility matter when we as politicians are asked to help people. How does the Secretary of State envisage that working if we do not have a functioning Assembly? Will there be some mechanism so that people on the ground who have lost money or cannot do something are listened to?
The clearest way is for an Executive to be formed. That is the most direct way for assurances to be given and direction to be provided. The lack of political direction at the moment underpins the need for an Executive and political decision making in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity. As I have indicated to the House this afternoon, the UK Government are prepared to take action should that be necessary. Our sense of responsibility as the UK Government is to provide the necessary political stability and assurance for the people of Northern Ireland.
To be absolutely clear, is the Secretary of State stating to the House from the Dispatch Box that the choice is clear: it is devolution or direct rule? By putting in place the points that he has made about appropriations, the ground is being laid for direct rule if that is required.
I do not want in any way to prejudge the outcome of the coming weeks. I earnestly hope, believe and want to see devolved government re-established in Northern Ireland. That is profoundly in the best interests of Northern Ireland, so that there is local decision making. There should be a strong message across the House of wanting to put that in position at the earliest opportunity. I have been careful in what I have said in laying out the position on the budget, and I have given assurances to allow flexibility for the Northern Ireland civil service to use residual emergency powers to deal with the pressures that it is experiencing and to ensure that public services continue to be run.
I have published a written ministerial statement that sets out indicative departmental allocations which reflect the budget priorities and decisions of the last Executive. They provide a basis for allocations in the absence of an Executive. It is important to make the point that those numbers are not UK Government numbers, but reflect the advice of the head of the Northern Ireland civil service and his assessment of a position that takes account of the priorities of the political parties before the Dissolution of the Assembly, as well as further allocations that he considers are required. They are intended to give clarity to Northern Ireland Departments about the basis on which they may wish to plan and prepare for more detailed decisions, and to discharge their responsibilities in the meantime.
We should, however, make it clear that those totals would not constrain the freedom of an incoming Executive to amend spending allocations, nor would it prevent the UK Government from reflecting on the final allocations in the light of circumstances at the appropriate time. I underline the position set out in the Bill. If agreement is not reached by 29 June, the electoral duty would essentially return to the Secretary of State, who would call an election in a reasonable period. Any incoming Government would need to reflect carefully on the stability of Northern Ireland and, as I have said, the need to deal with certain financial issues. We need to be resolutely focused on the need to get an Executive into position. That is precisely what the Bill allows for.
Yes, I have. That is why I believe that agreement is possible. The discussions that have taken place over recent weeks have shown where the space for agreement and compromise may lie. It is important that the Bill provides that space and opportunity for the parties to be able to find resolution of the outstanding issues and get back into devolved government, which is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for.
To go back to the budget, that budget does not allocate the resource and capital funding provided in the Chancellor’s March Budget. This funding was not allocated before the dissolution of the last Executive, and it is right that funding is available for parties to allocate to further priorities as they deem appropriate. Further detail on the spending plans will need to be provided through the Appropriation Act. My hope and belief is that the Act will be taken through the Northern Ireland Assembly, but that obviously relies on the Executive being formed. As I have indicated, that is where the focus should lie. If not, as I have said, we would be prepared to legislate to provide certainty, in line with our ultimate responsibility for political stability and good governance in Northern Ireland.
Will the Secretary of State clarify whether, in his mind, such legislation in that context would amount to direct rule in the sense that we have always know it, or would it be some form of downloadable legislative cover for administrative governance when it comes to further budget setting?
Again, I would not want to prejudge what the situation might be. That will be for an incoming Government. My point remains that that does not need to be the outcome. The outcome we want is for an Executive to be formed and a devolved Government to be in place, making decisions in Northern Ireland for the people of Northern Ireland. That is why I make these point about what the Bill provides and how it gives the space to allow that to happen. That must be the focus of us all in the time ahead.
By passing this Bill, we can provide the scope and space for a deal to be done by the parties. I will be working intensively with the parties to secure that outcome in the weeks ahead. Northern Ireland needs the restoration of an inclusive devolved Government working in Northern Ireland’s best interests. That is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for. It is what will deliver the public services that people rely upon, and it is what businesses, community groups and individuals across Northern Ireland want. The Bill will secure a framework within which that can be delivered. I commend it to the House.
I thank my comrade, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), for being here.
I totally agree with the Secretary of State’s opening words about what happened yesterday in Northern Ireland. This is clearly not where we need to be, and that is the main reason why we need to get resolution, and to get the Executive back up and running again. I also thank him for the kind words he said about me and the role that I have tried to play in this House. I congratulate him on the work that he has done and shared with me over difficult times to try to find a way forward.
I never wanted this debate to take place or to participate in it. The reality is that this is combined political failure on the part of all politicians right across these islands. The failure to constantly shape the crucial progress of confidence and trust has led to the sad situation facing us today. Not many years ago, the world looked on with a mixture of amazement and admiration when people and politicians put to one side centuries of animosity and hatred to build a new future for the people they served. Today we risk losing that vision.
As this Bill comes before the House, I am mindful of the issues that have caused the current impasse. Northern Ireland has seen drastic changes over the past few decades and difficult challenges have been overcome. The current challenges should not, by any means, be insurmountable—these are clearly less serious matters than those that faced us in 1998 or 2007—but the repercussions of failure are equally serious and dangerous. With good will on all sides, agreement could be reached, but people will have to compromise.
There are a number of areas that I wish to highlight. The first, which is one of the sticking points that has been raised, is equalities. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned the intransigence of Sinn Féin, and none of us is surprised that it is acting in an intransigent manner. What has surprised me about the position in which we find ourselves is the strength of feelings about the break-up of the Executive right across the nationalist community—it is not just one political party that has real concerns.
One of these serious concerns is about the failure to move on equality legislation. The Democratic Unionist party is proudly a party of Unionism, yet it seeks to limit the equality rights of people in Northern Ireland—access to abortion, and the rights of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Those rights are seen in every other part of the United Kingdom, so why does it oppose their extension throughout our United Kingdom? Why should two people who love each other not be able to show that in a formal marriage ceremony in Northern Ireland as they can in Great Britain? Why should a woman in Northern Ireland not have the right to choose what she does with her own body? Surely those ideas of equality and fairness are as core to those people’s identities as they are to the identity of myself and every other person living on these islands.
Another sticking point—again, we are hoping to see progress on this—is the Irish language. This is another example of how rights that are enjoyed by people across Great Britain are not available in Northern Ireland. In Wales and Scotland, legislation provides protections for the respective indigenous languages. Even in Cornwall there is a council-backed Cornish language strategy. Why do some in the Unionist community want to deprive many in Northern Ireland of the same advantages?
Before the shadow spokesman pontificates on these issues, he should at least try to get his facts right. In Northern Ireland, £171 million has already been spent on giving those in the Irish language community the ability to have their own schools—some schools have opened with fewer than 14 children—to have street names written in the Irish language and to have departmental letter headings in the Irish language, as well as to address a whole range of other issues. If the hon. Gentleman is going to pontificate about the promotion of the Irish language, he should at least get his facts right.
I am more than happy to leave it to others to pontificate—they have had much more practice of that than me. The point I am making is that there is a difference in the protections in Northern Ireland, and protection is what the nationalist community has asked for. There is not the same legislative basis as in Wales and Scotland, and that is one thing that politicians in Northern Ireland could put right tomorrow. They could have put it right in the last 10 years, and they could have put it right after the talks broke down in January, but they have so far chosen not to.
The shadow Secretary of State is going through a list of Sinn Féin demands, but I just wish he would come and talk to DUP Members from time to time, because we have issues. One of those is the armed forces covenant, which is implemented in full in every part of the United Kingdom except for Northern Ireland. Will he now join us in demanding that Sinn Féin honours the obligation to fully implement the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a lot of respect, says that I am promoting what Sinn Féin is saying. I have been very clear about the issues that have led to the impasse—they are not just Sinn Féin issues. I am raising these issues for this House, and for the people outside in the rest of Great Britain who might not have the inside knowledge that he has, to try to identify where the problems are and to point out that people can negotiate their way out of things if they want to.
On talking to the right hon. Gentleman’s party, I met his leader last week to discuss these very issues. I am very pleased that she is prepared to have discussions across the board. We are trying, as we always have, to work in a non-partisan way.
On the armed forces covenant, I am pleased that the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), is in the Chamber. We worked together on the covenant. We agreed a report that called on all parties to do the right thing by the people who have served our country, so I do not need to take any lectures from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on the armed forces covenant.
I welcome the discussions that the parties have been having. I believe that we can reach an agreement that is not only beneficial to the Irish language community, but—this point has been raised with me by the right hon. Gentleman’s leader in Northern Ireland—that gets more support and respect for the needs and heritage of the Ulster Scots community. I believe that that could be negotiated if people were serious about trying to find a way forward. I understand why some of the parties in Northern Ireland are against legislating on this: it is seen as a side deal that was done by Tony Blair many years ago. That might have been right or wrong at the time, but things have moved on. This is another relatively small step in the right direction that could be made today to try to resolve the outstanding issues.
Does the hon. Gentleman honestly believe in his heart that any of the things that he has read out today have led to the breakdown of the Assembly? If so, he is really saying that he does not believe in devolution, and that no region of the United Kingdom should have its differences recognised, which devolution allows for, because everything should just be the same across the United Kingdom.
As somebody who has been a passionate supporter of devolution for many years, I do not accept that criticism.
We have a situation that is at breaking point, and we need to find a way forward. Before I came to this House, I spent all my life in negotiating situations and conflict resolution as a trade union representative. It should be possible to resolve the situation, but that will not happen as long as people are saying that they are not prepared to move on this, that or the other. I am talking about people on both sides, as I shall set out later in my speech. Unless people are prepared to move, the reality is that this House will probably have to take back direct control in Northern Ireland, which would be in nobody’s interests. It would not be in the interests of devolution or of people governing themselves.
I want to move on to the legacy situation. Clearly one of the biggest issues facing all of us—this has been the case for many years—is how we deal with Northern Ireland’s tragic past. The truth is that we have all collectively failed the victims of the troubles, and their ongoing suffering is only compounded by our lack of action. Regardless of the background, or whether they served in uniform, we are depriving them and their families of the truth and the closure that many of them want. The truth, regardless of how hard it is, must be heard.
During my many visits to Northern Ireland, I have heard details of many cases from families who lost loved ones, but one in particular has stayed with me: the case of Samuel Devenney. When I met his family last year, I was informed by them of the details surrounding his death in 1969. I would like the House to bear in mind that date—it is almost 50 years ago. That family have never had access to all the relevant files, which are now held by the Metropolitan police. They were due to be released into the national archives but, yet again, they have been reclassified and are being retained by the police service until at least 2022. That cannot be anything other than a travesty.
I ask Members to think about 1969—it was a very different world. I was a 15-year-old boy starting work as a coalminer. England had won the world cup a few years earlier. We had not joined the Common Market—[Interruption.] I thought that would get a cheer. We were two years away from decimalisation—perhaps that will be the subject of the next campaign. The Beatles were still friends, Brian Jones was still in the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison were still alive and making great music—[Interruption.] Yes, Labour was indeed in office, and doing great things.
At that time, however, on 19 April 1969, Mr Devenney died at the hands of Royal Ulster Constabulary officers, who were never prosecuted due to a lack of evidence. Mr Devenney was seen as one of the first victims of the troubles and still today his family are pleading for justice. This is just one of the many cases in Northern Ireland. The lack of progress made by countless Governments—Labour and Conservative—shows a dereliction of duty from us here in Westminster. I am not making a special case for Mr Devenney, other than to point out how long his family have gone without closure. That is completely and utterly unacceptable.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech about, it seems, every sin that has ever been committed by every person in Northern Ireland. As this Parliament comes to a close and there is a clear financial imperative for the Northern Ireland Government to be able to continue throughout our election period, when the Secretary of State and the UK Government will be somewhat constrained, and certainly during the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Dissolution, does the hon. Gentleman accept that it would be more helpful if he made a positive contribution about how he can assist the Secretary of State, who has made a statesmanlike speech about bringing people together, rather than a divisive one, which is more in keeping with the leadership of the hon. Gentleman’s party than his own spirit?
Perhaps my accent means that the hon. Gentleman is not getting what I am saying. I am talking about the realities on the ground. It is right and proper that this House hears what the obstacles are. The Secretary of State and I have talked about them ad infinitum over the past few months. We have tried to play our part in resolving them and to say to the people over there that although there are issues, they are not huge. This is not about people being let out of jail, as they were 20 years ago, on-the-runs or people being pardoned. They are relatively small issues, but they are genuine. If we cannot resolve the issues of equality and legacy, what are we here for?
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Northern Ireland Government, but I remind him that the Assembly is not even sitting. I am very clear that we will, without doubt, offer support. I have also had discussions with the head of the civil service and I am determined that it will be allowed to have the powers that it will need to carry on supporting public services in Northern Ireland. I am a huge supporter of that, which is one of the reasons why I am involved in this work.
Given that we are trying to achieve consensus and talk about the issues seriously, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to balance the examples he cites from one side with an acknowledgement that there are still many families in Northern Ireland who have never had a proper inquiry into—or, indeed, an explanation from Sinn Féin or the IRA about—what happened to their loved ones. It is only fair that he should reflect on that and perhaps say something about it.
If I had not been so generous in accepting interventions—I have been happy to do so—I would have come on to that point. I did point out that I raised that gentleman’s case only because of how long ago it happened. We, as genuine, reasonable human beings—forget our status as politicians and our party affiliations—should be able to resolve matters and say that it is not right that, 48 years after something happened, families have not had the chance to see a report on the reason behind it.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am sorry that I was not here for the start of the debate, but I was here in time to hear the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about Mr Devenney and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. My late husband was very proud indeed of the extraordinary men and women who served with extraordinary courage and made an extraordinary sacrifice—302 RUC officers were murdered. Would the hon. Gentleman like to put on the record his thanks, gratitude and admiration for the RUC and the service it gave during the troubles in Northern Ireland?
I will do that, as I fully intended to do in my speech. I think the hon. Lady will confirm that although we might have a different view on the future of Ireland, we have worked together and we recognise the great role that those people have played. As much as anything, raising legacy issues is about getting the truth out for people who might have been unjustly castigated for years for something that was not their fault. Without clarity, truth and honesty, we will never get there.
Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), may I help the hon. Gentleman with an example? My cousin Samuel Donaldson was murdered by the Provisional IRA on 12 August 1970, along with his colleague Constable Roy Miller. They were the first two RUC officers to be murdered by the Provisional IRA in what has become known as the troubles, and no one has ever been brought to justice for their killings. IRA-Sinn Féin have refused to co-operate in providing the information that would enable those responsible to be brought to justice. I call on the shadow Secretary of State to join us in calling for Sinn Féin to step up to the plate and to own up, come clean and give information to families who have been waiting for decades for truth and justice.
I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman, and I believe that that is part and parcel of the demands that we in this House should make. Such co-operation is part of Sinn Féin’s responsibility as democratically elected politicians, and they should be doing that in every way they can; they must never, ever run away from it. I want to make it clear that to me, all victims are equal. Anyone who was injured or killed as a result of the troubles in Northern Ireland—whether they were a civilian, a paramilitary or one of the selfless individuals in the armed forces or the RUC who sought to protect the people of Northern Ireland—deserves the truth. I call on all parties to do all they can to make that truth known.
The shadow Secretary of State mentions the contribution of our armed forces in Northern Ireland. As a former soldier, I wonder whether he will confirm that he believes, as I do, that the British Army should not be subject to further investigation over its actions during the troubles. Will he also confirm that the loyalties of the Labour party, under its current leadership, lie firmly with the British Army, not with the IRA?
I am sorry, but I cannot agree that people in uniform who acted incorrectly should not be brought to book. What signal would we be sending out if we let that happen—that it is all right to act out of order? We expect the highest standards from our great people in uniform. In response to the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the leadership of the Labour party, it is clear that the party is committed to our armed forces and not to any terrorist organisation.
Would the shadow Secretary of State accept, however—I think this is the point that the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) was trying to make—that not every incident in which the police or the armed forces were involved that included a killing should be treated as though it were a murder? This inequality causes the anger that we have seen in so many families. There is no doubt that every killing by terrorists was a murder—it was illegal—but many of the incidents in which soldiers and policemen were involved were in protection of life and property. Therefore, they should not be treated by the authorities, as they are at present, as though they involved something illegal.
The hon. Gentleman and I have worked together on these issues, and he knows my view that it is obvious that the vast majority of the things done by our forces were not murder. But the process of investigation has fallen apart, and we need to put it back together again so that we can get to the bottom of things. If there are some cases that could be construed as murder—this is quite clear in the agreements that people have signed to try to make the process work—we have to get to the root of them and get them aired out in public. That is all we are saying. I agree with him that the vast majority of things that were done by the forces were in no sense murder. In the interests of all the parties in Northern Ireland, and of the Government, we must get the legacy stuff properly resolved, and that must be properly resourced.
We in Labour accept that there may well be some genuine issues on the national security front, but I say respectfully to the Government that national security must never, ever be used as a cover-up for wrongdoing by Governments and other agents of the state. I include in that my former colleagues in Labour Governments as well as the Secretary of State’s colleagues in former Conservative Governments.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves off the legacy issue, may I challenge him, because he has spent some time detailing a legacy case, to detail any other case that involves listing a Unionist grievance? That would balance the books in the way that the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) suggested. Does the hon. Gentleman know of any Unionist grievances?
I do, but I am not prepared to detail such cases today, because I prepared that one, and as I said at the beginning—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to speak, I will tell him exactly why. I used that case because it was so long ago. He probably was not listening—he usually listens, but perhaps he was not doing so—but I made it very clear that I make no differentiation between victims. Whoever they were, however they died or however they were injured, they all deserve the right to have a system in place that enables a trial to be won. That is what the politicians in Northern Ireland are failing to do: they have failed to have a system that works properly. We have to build genuine openness, as well as confidence and trust, because if we do not, people will never be able to move this country forward.
Another issue that I want to raise—I am moving on from the legacy issue—is the abuse of the petition of concern, about which discussions with the political parties have taken place during the past few months. That process was put in place in the original agreements to allow a space for remedying issues, including the abuse of power, raised by one community against another. It was to make sure that that such things could not happen in the institutions, but it is now being used as a veto over progress. This was not the intention, and we must try to get back to the original intention.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that particular point, but a year ago—I do not know whether he was at this meeting—I made that very point to the then First Minister, Peter Robinson, and the late Martin McGuinness, and they both defended the petition of concern process and said that it worked well for each side. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but that is what we tend to come up against.
I have no doubt that people who may want to use the process for the purpose I have described—as a veto, rather than as a genuine way of resolving problems —would say that. Of course they would. However, I am relating to the House the things I am being told as part and parcel of my trying, in my little way, to say that we should find a way to get the Executive up and running again. That is what this is all about; it is not about scoring points, or making points about what happened 40 years ago. I am relating the issues that people are telling me are the reasons why they cannot sit down with each other, and I am saying that any reasonable human being should be trying to find a way through this.
Another issue that I want to address—the renewable heat incentive—is again one on which a reasonable position could be reached. We were all told it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Government should work with the parties there, saying that we should get the inquiry going, and when its report comes out, we will work to make sure that any funding shortfall is not laid directly at the feet of the people of Northern Ireland, unless that is done in a way that can be managed over a period of time. That is very important if we are not to end up losing funding for vital public services while this matter is cleared up.
We need the parties to begin to trust each other and to move away from entrenched positions. I say clearly to Sinn Féin from the Opposition Dispatch Box that it should drop its demand for the leader of the DUP to stand aside while the inquiry is going on. It should seek assurances from her—I believe she has given such assurances—that she will co-operate fully with the inquiry, accept its outcomes and will not hinder its progress in any way. That would be a huge step in the direction of rebuilding the trust and confidence that have allowed sworn enemies to govern in Northern Ireland during previous years.
I hope that Members will take what I have said today in the spirit in which it is meant. I have laid before the House the issues that people are telling me are the reasons why the system has fallen apart. Some may be cynical and say that those are not the reasons—we will no doubt hear that over the next few hours—but I am reporting back to the House what I am being told about what we should do to move forward.
I am sad to be in the situation of having a general election. Sadly, the Government’s failure to recognise the impact of that on reaching a resolution in Northern Ireland is symptomatic of the approach they have taken during the past seven years. The lack of direct, meaningful engagement by both the present and the previous Prime Ministers has done nothing but show the people of Northern Ireland that they are little more than an afterthought in this Government’s mind. It is no way to act in a situation that is still one of conflict resolution. The “job done” attitude just does not work.
I welcome the Bill, because it provides more time for the parties to engage in discussions about the formation of an Executive. With a general election looming, it is apparent that the Government did not think of the effect it would have on Northern Ireland. Thankfully, the Bill does not represent direct rule, which it may well have done, so I am pleased that that is out of the way, in the short term at least. It sets a regional rate, which is necessary to fund vital public services in Northern Ireland, and fills the gap in the short term.
I call on all parties to do what the Secretary of State said: when the Bill receives Royal Assent, hopefully on Thursday, they should sit down on Friday and start working it out, and look at the reality of what they are saying they cannot resolve. I suggest that every one of the points I have laid out today can be resolved if people want to do so. If they do not, we will be back here—well, I won’t be, but others will—in a few weeks’ time with things possibly in even worse shape. Sadly, I believe that what we saw yesterday in Northern Ireland may well be repeated, as a way of people saying, “We’ve tried for 20 years to work together. It isn’t working and it’s never going to work. The only way is to go back to where we were.” None of us should want that and none of us who has any say in this should let anything get in the way of stopping it happening.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The shadow Secretary of State indicated in his speech that he was going to list a number of grievances and a number of issues in relation to legacy. Can you confirm for us what time we have left for this debate? The shadow Secretary believed he was running out of time, but he has sufficient time to make those lists available to the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. I can answer part of it. I would expect the Second Reading debate to last until 8.16 pm, so there is plenty of time. As to the content of the valedictory speech made by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) from the Dispatch Box, that is not a matter for me but entirely a matter for the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that if he has something further to add to what he has already said, he will find an opportunity in the next three hours to say it. Later today, after Second Reading, we will hopefully have the Third Reading debate, when I would expect to hear more speeches from both sides of the House.
I join the Secretary of State in his condemnation of the actions taken yesterday, which were another attempt to kill innocent men, women and children. That is totally unacceptable in any part of the world. For it to continue in the United Kingdom is abhorrent to all right-thinking people. I congratulate the Secretary of State on the work he has done over the past few weeks, which to him probably seems like months. He has done his utmost to bring the parties in Northern Ireland together to get the institutions up and running again. I thank him for keeping in touch with me, as Chairman of the Select Committee. That has been very useful, so I thank him. I wish him well in his future discussions.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) for his performance over many, many years in this House. He has worked here for many years and I was very sorry to hear that he will not be seeking re-election to Parliament. He was a long-standing, very active and extremely good member of the Select Committee for many years before he took up his present position. I can confirm that he is a tough negotiator, but he is a fair man and it was a great pleasure to work with him. I wish him well for the future.
It is unfortunate that we have to be here yet again to discuss these matters and it is unfortunate that the rates have to be set from this place. It is not entirely democratic and it is not in any way satisfactory that, following an election with a high turnout of voters, we end up taking decisions here in this place that should rightly be taken in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, it is worse than that, because that is just a microcosm of a bigger situation. I know that many individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland see the breaking down of the institutions as a distraction from what they want to do. Only last week, I had a meeting with representatives of a business that wants to expand and bring potentially hundreds of jobs to Northern Ireland. They do not know where they are. They do not know what the position is. They do not know how the planning process will work, because it is a large application. They really do regret the present situation. It is not one in which any of us want to find ourselves, but here we are again.
I am glad that the Secretary of State outlined the options. He did not actually use the words “direct rule”, but that is obviously what we will be sliding towards if no agreement can be secured and we cannot get the institutions up and running in Northern Ireland. I do not want that to happen. What I do want to happen is, for instance, the addressing of the concerns that that company raised with me last week. I want the company to be able to create those jobs in Northern Ireland without the distraction of election upon election upon election, and the making of decisions in a piecemeal way. That is not what people of that kind want.
I was in Northern Ireland a couple of weeks ago on a social visit, speaking to friends there. They are Catholics, which is an important factor because of what I am about to say. They said to me, “For goodness’ sake, Laurence, get on with it and bring back direct rule, because that is only way we will see any decisions made.” They do not particularly want direct rule—most people probably do not want it—but if it comes to a choice between chaos and direct rule, people will go for direct rule. They will have to.
It is unfortunate that we have reached such a position, but let me say to those who are likely to bring about that situation—and they are not, I believe, those who are in the Chamber today, but those who refuse to take their seats in the Chamber—that it would be rather paradoxical and strange that the one party that says that it does not want rule from this place should be the party that will bring it about. How odd will that be?
If those people are listening, let me inform them of what direct rule really means. I was a shadow Minister when we had direct rule in previous Parliaments, and it does not mean that everything is decided in the Chamber. It does not work like that. There are Committees upstairs with 20 or so members—hand-picked by the Whips: let us be honest about that. Very few of those members would be from Northern Ireland, because of the mathematics involved. Important matters are decided in those Committees. That is the reality of direct rule. I would ask those who are getting in the way of the institutions’ being set up again, “Is that how you want Northern Ireland to be governed?”
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that members of Sinn Féin have form on this issue, and that—this may have some resonance in the current circumstances—when they want to dodge hard decisions, they are quite happy, despite their “Brits out” rhetoric, to hand powers back to Westminster so that it can make those hard decisions, as they did in the case of welfare reform about a year and a half ago?
That is a very good point. I genuinely do not know what their logic is. As I have said, theirs is the party that shouts the loudest about its opposition to British rule, as they call it, yet theirs seems to me to be the party that will shortly bring it about. As I have also said, I do not want us to go down that road, and there is still time to avoid it.
That takes me to my next point, which is about power-sharing. I think that those on all sides, if they sign up to power-sharing, must accept what that means. It means working with people whom you do not necessarily like. It means working with people with whom you do not necessarily want to work. It means compromising on certain policies. You do not always get the exact policy that you want. Come to think of it, I suppose that every political party is like that. We all have discussions within political parties; we all have disagreements on policy within political parties. We all have to work within political parties with people with whom, perhaps, we do not want to work. That is the reality of politics. In fact, that is the reality of many jobs. People who work in companies have to work with people whom they do not like. They have to work on policies which are set by management and with which they may not agree. That is the nature of work. If people are not prepared to accept compromises—if they are going to run away every time there is a difference of opinion, and take the ball home, and bring the institutions down—the system simply will not work. I think that all parties—I am not talking about just one party—must accept that.
I am not here to represent Sinn Féin, and I do not think I will ever want to be, but is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that all of us should have turned a blind eye to the crisis over the renewable heat initiative and done nothing? To my mind, he ignores the fact that this crisis was triggered by a serious issue of confidence that needs to be dealt with and resolved. Other things have piled in, and we can throw abuse—[Interruption]—and there is a lot of it coming from the Democratic Unionist party Bench behind me, but that serves no purpose. If we are going to go forward, we need to restore devolution in Northern Ireland, and if we are going to do that, we have to behave in a sane, sensible and mature fashion and recognise the facts.
It is a pleasure to work with the hon. Gentleman on the Select Committee as well, and he brings a great deal of calm and common sense to it. I fully understand what he says, and I am not saying that that should be brushed under the carpet, but I do not see why an inquiry could not have been carried out with the then First Minister still in place. To risk bringing all the institutions down is—on any issue, to be honest—not worth it. I think this is a big issue; it is worth half a billion pounds over 20 years, but I do not think it is a big enough issue to bring the institutions down.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on all he has done as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Does he agree that at times we see double standards operating in Northern Ireland? In the constituency of Belfast South, we had a most brutal murder in a pub of a young man by members of the IRA, and as a result my party and others questioned Sinn Féin’s fitness for government and confidence in that fitness, yet the SDLP did nothing, absolutely nothing, to challenge Sinn Féin on that issue and its fitness for government. Are there not double standards operating here? Is one murder not worth more than the RHI scandal?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and it goes back to the point I was trying to make earlier: we either accept that we have to work with people we do not like and do not want to work with, or we do not, and if we do not accept that, there is no power sharing. It is as simple as that.
I am afraid it is a very good point that parties on both sides have had to work with people they do not want to work with. There are accusations about certain Members of the Assembly, and if they were in this place and we had to work very closely with them, maybe we would not like that either, but it has had to happen for the sake of devolution and the institutions.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw our attention to some of the terrible crimes that have been committed. The shadow Minister has been questioned on the issue of citing crimes from across the board; I know that he very much condemns crimes wherever they come from.
The Select Committee is concluding its report into Libyan-sponsored IRA activity, and I was rereading the proposed document this morning. I will not go into the details as the Committee has not considered it, but in that draft report are many examples of IRA violence—of the way the IRA has torn lives apart. Rereading some of those things this morning in the car as I came down to Westminster served as a reminder of what has gone on in Northern Ireland and how unacceptable it was.
I do not want to get into the issue of the prosecution of the soldiers at this point as that strays from the central part of our debate, but of course one side in the conflict always referred to it as “the war.” They did so because that excused the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children. So one side had a “war” and the other side was expected to go by the book—or the yellow card, to be precise. That is a very unfair way of looking at this whole situation and the whole legacy issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—and I do count him as a friend for the support that he has given to Northern Ireland over many years. Does he accept that the Bill before the House will tip the scales in favour of direct rule? Tonight, people in Ulster will be watching their televisions and learning that it will be this House that is setting their rates. For the past 10 years, that has been done in the Northern Ireland Assembly. If that balance is tipped, each piece of legislation that comes forward will make it harder and harder to get back to devolution.
My hon. Friend puts his finger on the problem. Yes, this is a slippery slope, but in some ways the Bill offers an opportunity for people to get together and re-form the Executive. It would allow that to happen. However, my hon. Friend is right. Indeed, it would probably not be the whole of this House that decided the rates; that would be done by the Secretary of State. With respect to him, that is the only way he could do this. This goes back to what I said about direct rule earlier. Hon. Members will not get a say on the details, whereas if these decisions were being taken in Northern Ireland, there would be much more involvement by local people. That would be far better.
I really hope that the Secretary of State will somehow be able to get the parties together in Northern Ireland so that we can avoid having Committees upstairs here running Northern Ireland, which would be most unsatisfactory. Whether he succeeds or not, we really need to look at the Belfast agreement and the legislation to see whether they need updating. I do not wish to undermine the principles of power sharing in any way, but we need to make an attempt to make it work. At the moment, it is not working. If it were, we would not be sitting here now and we would not have been in crisis 18 months ago. I do not want everything to be set up again, only to find that we are in crisis again after six or 12 months.
The shadow Secretary of State mentioned the petition of concern issue earlier. I, too, raised that matter, and I was told at the time that the parties were happy with the situation. That, and an awful lot of other issues, need to be looked at. We need to modernise and update the arrangements so that they can deal with the situation that we find ourselves in now, rather than the one that we were in 20 years ago. Without doubt, a lot of progress has been made in Northern Ireland. We cannot deny that, and we should not want to, but we have to get the political process right as well. If we do not, people will completely lose faith in it, and that would be in nobody’s interests.
First, I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about the terrible discovery that was made yesterday. I commend all the emergency services and the police for the tremendous efforts made on behalf of their community. I also echo his words about the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), who is stepping down not only from this position but that of shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. His efforts in both remits have been much appreciated.
The Scottish National party will support the passage of the Bill. The decisions involved would be better made on the other side of the Irish sea, but we are where we are and it is important to set rateable values so that the administration of public services can continue. There are Brexit difficulties coming down the road, especially around border issues, and it is right that we do all we can to minimise the turbulence, but those decisions should properly be made in Stormont. There is a real need to get the political Administration in Stormont back up and running, and I am sure that the electorate who are being asked to go back to the polls for a snap general election so soon after the snap Stormont election will be urging a resolution to the negotiations and a resumption of administration duties. Getting an Administration up and running so that decisions can be taken there rather than here would be the best option all round, and that should be our main aim. As I have said, the SNP will support the Bill.
I begin by echoing the previous comments, particularly those of the Secretary of State, on the vile and cowardly bomb left outside Holy Cross Boys Primary School in the Ardoyne. I commend all those in the security forces who handled the incident and who handle similar incidents 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every week of the year. We all owe them a great debt of thanks for the manner in which they continue to police Northern Ireland. I also pay tribute to their predecessors who created the conditions, in intensely difficult circumstances and under quite extraordinary provocation, that enabled the peace process to take place.
On that basis, I wholly commend the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has shown remarkable forbearance and patience, who has been abused and criticised quite unfairly in recent weeks and who has let himself in for a further extension through to 29 June, which is a wholly sensible measure. As he rightly said, there is not a single Member of this House, at least not that I know of, who would like to see direct rule return. The shadow Secretary of State, sadly in his valedictory performance—we will miss him in the next Parliament—rightly concurred that no one here wants direct rule to come back. There is a slightly daft narrative that some crazy Brits really want to reimpose direct rule, but absolutely not.
The institutions were set up and the Belfast agreement was passed after the most extraordinary period of negotiation, man-years of effort and bipartisan agreement in this House when members of Conservative Administrations made intensely difficult decisions that were supported by the Labour Opposition. In turn, when Labour came to power and we were in opposition, we supported the Labour Government. I had the honour to be shadow Secretary of State when the last major element, the devolution of policing and justice, went through, and we backed Labour all the way. There was a similar process in Dublin, where both main parties consistently supported the process, and of course none of this could have happened without the extraordinary support of both parties in the United States of America.
There is exasperation that we have now come to this point. There has been such progress, and I would like to speak up for those hard-working people on the ground in Northern Ireland. I still go to Northern Ireland, and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and I appeared on “Spotlight” about three weeks ago. A lady in the audience asked me a good question, “What is going to happen about our budget? Who is going to pay our bills?” That was exactly the right question because she, along with many others, probably voted on 2 March to elect local politicians to make these decisions. None of us wants to make these decisions for those local politicians. It is completely exasperating.
I go to see the most wonderful, world-class businesses, which are trying to attract investment to Northern Ireland. They are travelling on behalf of Northern Ireland, representing hard-working, brilliantly skilful Northern Ireland people, and what is the international message?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that maybe a longer-term strategy is now re-emerging from Sinn Féin to make Northern Ireland unstable so that the people of Northern Ireland start to question its ability to govern itself? Maybe it is a tactic of Sinn Féin’s .
I do not like to comment on the motives of any political party. I would just like to say that, as someone who has been involved in Northern Ireland—I had three years as shadow Secretary of State and two years as the real Secretary of State—there is such good will among the populace across all parts of the community. I do not like talking about communities; I like talking about the whole community. They long for this to work, and there is real good will, but now there is utter frustration.
I am particularly exasperated because my great project, with representatives of four local parties—the fifth local party was also supportive—was to give Northern Ireland politicians the ability to set corporation tax, because we know that the Republic of Ireland’s determination, in the face of intense criticism from other major member states of the EU, to hold on to its right to set corporation tax has been the key to its success. The then Finance Minister in Dublin described it as the cornerstone of that success. As part of what was called the Azores agreement, it was vital for there to be a democratically elected institution in a devolved area to make that decision.
The current situation is exasperating for me, having got this measure through—having got complete unity among Northern Ireland parties and the support of almost all Northern Ireland business—and knowing the tremendous good it has done. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is sitting there and I have visited his constituency. Just over the border, in Letterkenny, an extraordinary amount of investment is being made because of the corporation tax rate there, yet so much of that could have gone to Londonderry if the rate had been set in Northern Ireland. This measure was one of the great achievements of the last coalition Government, and I pay full tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who took it through during her time as Secretary of State. The powers are there, if only local politicians would grab the opportunity and establish an Executive.
Sadly, I must support this Bill; I totally endorse the comments of the Secretary of State and shadow Secretary of State that we would like to see an Executive set up. We had a successful election—that passed off—there are newly elected Members of the Legislative Assembly and they should be working with the institutions to set up a new Executive. Sadly, it is necessary to set a regional rate, but I hope we have to do it only temporarily. It is sensible for the Secretary of State to set a lengthier target of 29 June, and I wish him well on that, but if the elected local politicians still do not come to their senses by then I ask him to consider introducing legislation here on the issue of the cost of Stormont. Crudely, it costs about £1 million a month in salaries and expenses for MLAs. I know full well that the Northern Ireland public—
The right hon. Gentleman is about to move on to a subject he takes great interest in. When he was shadow Secretary of State, he promised to people—he went around Northern Ireland and he told this House—that when a Conservative Administration came into power he would deal with the cost of Sinn Féin MPs who are elected to this place, do not do any work and do what he is now going to go on to claim the MLAs are doing at Stormont. He did nothing about that. Will he now agree that if the Government are going to take steps at Stormont, they will need to take steps at Westminster as well to address the same problem that exists in relation to people who are elected to this House and who, voluntarily, do not do their job? For us on the Democratic Unionist party Benches, this will be a critical issue.
I know Members do not like this, but I should say that there are very few tools left in the Secretary of State’s box and one is to put financial pressure on the political parties. [Interruption.] This may hurt the right hon. Gentleman’s party and it may hurt his competitors, but I have not heard anything from the other side as to why this should not be done. I have not heard a single member of the public in Northern Ireland criticise this. The Belfast Telegraph polled a significant number of people and a very large majority supported the idea. We still have time—even if this Bill goes through today, we will still have until 29 June; we will have had four months, or a third of a year. I do not think this approach is unfair, and I think it has huge support across Northern Ireland among the general public. I do not think it is unfair to say that if elected Members cannot get their act together after four months, they should cease to receive public money in salary and their staff should cease to receive public money in their salaries and costs.
I am a simple Back Bencher, but the right hon. Gentleman knows very well that I believe strongly that, in the words of Lady Boothroyd, as she now is, there is no such thing as “associate membership” of this House. She was exactly right on that. Those elected to this House should take their seats if they are to receive public money, but that does not get away from the point I am making, which is germane to this point about 29 June. I repeat it again: should elected Members not get their act together and form an Executive, the Government should consider taking powers to stop them getting salaries and expenses from the public purse, because that will put pressure on them and that is what the people of Northern Ireland will be looking for. In the light of that, I will support the Bill tonight. I regret very much, as does the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State, that we have come to this point, but it is a sensible measure to buy us more time.
I echo the words of the Secretary of State and other Members by congratulating the security forces on stopping the murder of policemen by the bomb that was placed outside a primary school in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds).
I am disappointed with the Labour party spokesman, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), although perhaps I should not be. Like the BBC this morning, he almost tried to associate that bomb with the fact that there is a political impasse at Stormont. I am glad that the police and the principal of the primary school rejected that idea—they are far more perceptive than some of the BBC reporters. They fully understood that the people who plant these bombs do not care whether Stormont is working—if Stormont is working, it is an excuse; if it is not working, it is an excuse. Those people are determined to bring terror to the streets of Northern Ireland simply to get their own way, which they cannot get through the ballot box. We have to nail this lie that there is somehow justification in planting bombs because of what is happening in politics—there is no justification.
I just say very clearly to the hon. Gentleman—I will call him my hon. Friend—that he has not got what I said right in any way. I said nothing like that. The first thing I did in my speech was to condemn the act, but I did say at the end of it that the failure to get a political resolution will give some people another excuse to go back to the bad old days. That is not at all to say that I condone what went on in any way—not a chance.
And of course the point that I am making is that these people do not need an excuse, because they are committed to changing Northern Ireland’s status through violence. Whether Stormont is working at full tilt or not working, that is sufficient reason for them to continue what they are doing.
I welcome the comments that were made about the incident by Sinn Féin’s North Belfast spokesman this morning. He talked about how vile it was that a school should be used as a basis for an attack on the security forces, but let us not forget that Sinn Féin and Kelly’s comrades used schools as a means of attacking members of the security forces in the past. Indeed, they walked into classrooms and shot part-time members of the security forces. They blew up buses that were taking children to school. They killed the drivers of buses who were taking children to school. Although we welcome the fact that there now appears to be a change of heart on the part of Sinn Féin, it does us well to remember that the tactics used by the dissidents are no different from those that were used by Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA for more than 30 years in Northern Ireland.
We support the Bill—it is a necessary piece of legislation. When the Secretary of State spoke to it, he could have gone further by making it clear to Sinn Féin—I will address this further later on—that it has created the current situation and is responsible for the stalemate we face. He should have made it clear that the alternative to progress is direct rule. That possibility ought to have been spelled out in this House.
The Northern Ireland Office has made not offending Sinn Féin into an art form. The Secretary of State should pay less heed to the Northern Ireland Office and more to the political reality on the ground. I simply say to him that had he acted more quickly at the beginning of the crisis, we could have avoided this situation in Northern Ireland. Despite the pleas in this House from Democratic Unionists, the Labour party, the Scottish nationalists and some of his own Back Benchers, he did not initiate the investigation that could have taken the sting out of Sinn Féin’s accusation about the renewable heat incentive. Time and again, he said at the Dispatch Box that because there was no agreement between the political parties, he could not initiate an investigation. Cynically, as soon as Sinn Féin had got what it wanted—mainly to bring down the Executive—the first person to announce the inquiry was no less than Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, the Sinn Féin Finance Minister. The Secretary of State should have initiated an investigation.
The Labour spokesman talked about the need to get away from this particular part of the impasse, but Arlene Foster never refused to take part in a public inquiry. She never refused to give her account to or to be questioned at a public inquiry. The problem was that there was not an inquiry. Had the Secretary of State been prepared to grasp that nettle, we could have avoided a situation in which Sinn Féin was able to use the excuse that until it had clarity on the issue, it could not possibly work with Arlene Foster. The lesson for the Secretary of State to learn from what happened is this: despite the threats that might come from Sinn Féin, sometimes it is important not to listen to the wets in the Northern Ireland Office, but to act on political instincts.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Government here should have acted more quickly as the RHI scandal emerged, but he is painting a complete fiction by trying to say that the DUP wanted a public inquiry—it entirely opposed a public inquiry. It was on the same page as Sinn Féin in opposing a public inquiry. It said that an inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee in the Assembly would be sufficient, and it was on that cue that the Secretary of State ensured that he and Treasury colleagues stayed out of the issue.
I do not want to bore the House with the details of what happened last December, but the First Minister made it quite clear at that stage that she believed that she had nothing to hide. She was prepared to face an inquiry of whatever status was required to get to the truth, and that is still her position. In fact, she is co-operating on this.
The Bill is also necessary because of the way in which the finances in Northern Ireland have been left. Again, there are lessons to be learned from this. I suspect that the Secretary of State will have to come back at the end of June with another Bill to implement the budget in Northern Ireland. It will not be a satisfactory budget, because it will probably be based on last year’s distribution of finances to ensure that 100% of the budget is spent, and no new priorities will be set. As the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), stated, one of the central planks of the Executive’s economic policy cannot to be contained in that budget, because it will not be possible for this House, while we remain in the EU, to legislate for the reduction of corporation tax and, of course, to allocate funds for that. That will be a missed opportunity for many firms and prospective investors in Northern Ireland.
Let us look at why we have no budget, because this gives an indication of where Sinn Féin is and the prospects for an agreement. We do not have a budget in Northern Ireland not because the Executive could not agree one, and not because it was rejected by the coalition partners, but because there was never a budget brought forward to the Executive. Why was that the case? I think that Sinn Féin could not face the reality of having to introduce a budget in which hard decisions needed to be made. Of course, that was true about the restructuring of the health service. There was a report on restructuring the health service that set out how money could be saved and how some of the problems it faces could be addressed, but Sinn Féin did not act on it. Why? Because that involved hard decisions. When it came to welfare reform more than a year and a half ago, Sinn Féin did not act either. It was quite happy for that to be dealt with by the Government here.
There is a question that must be asked by those of us who are involved politically in Northern Ireland: is Sinn Féin serious about getting out of the impasse, or is it quite content? Those in Sinn Féin will never answer this, but are they quite content for the process to roll on and on, to have direct rule, and to have difficult decisions about the budget, the allocation of resources, Brexit and all the other things that concern them decided here? They can then blame the big bad Brits, but keep their hands clean and maintain the myth in the Irish Republic, perpetuated by the bearded guru, Gerry Adams, that somehow they have an economic policy that can avoid any austerity measures. The one thing they do not want is to have to introduce austerity measures or cuts in Northern Ireland while they are promising people in the Irish Republic that they have some kind of economic magic wand they could wave if they were only in coalition down there.
This is the question that the Secretary of State has to ask. It is the question that we as a party have to ask, too, as well as the other parties in Northern Ireland. What concessions does Sinn Féin really want, or might direct rule suit its purposes until the election takes place in the Republic? Why did those in Sinn Féin not bring forward a budget? Why did they not make hard decisions when they could in the Northern Ireland Assembly? They consistently—this has always been their position—run away from these decisions. If that is the case, we will have an impasse after the election on 8 June.
The difficulty in the talks is that we have seen the reason why Sinn Féin cannot or will not go into government change almost weekly. First of all it was the RHI, but RHI is hardly mentioned now. The Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was right—was the RHI such a big scandal that it should have resulted in a constitutional crisis? At the risk of causing some anger among Government Members, let us look at the RHI throughout the United Kingdom, and at Drax power station, where a coal mine down the road was closed while wood pellets were brought from halfway around the world. There is no cap on the subsidy—it started at £400 million, it is now £600 million, and by 2020 it will be £1 billion. Did any Minister resign? Did the Government fall? No, yet a £25 million overspend that has now been corrected in Northern Ireland caused a constitutional crisis.
This is a point that was made time and time again. Of course, Sinn Féin was ably assisted by the BBC, which, for 70 consecutive days, I think, kept the issue in the news bulletins. Of course, now it has been dropped and we hardly ever hear it mentioned.
There are other issues that have come to the fore, such as the Irish language Act and the denial of rights of Irish language speakers. Of course, I wish the hon. Member for Blaydon well when he leaves this House, but we saw the face of the Labour party in this House this afternoon and we heard the voice of Sinn Féin. When Labour’s spokesman gave his speech at the Dispatch Box, we heard the same kind of excuses, we heard that people were being denied their right to speak the Irish language. They are not being denied their right to speak the Irish language. We fund the Irish language through the Assembly to the tune of £171 million. We allow Irish language schools to be opened and fund those schools when there are as few as 14 pupils in them while at the same time closing schools in the state sector with 50 or 100 pupils in them. Yet we are told that we somehow or other do not give proper treatment to those who wish to speak the Irish language. Councils are free, if they wish, after following the requirements of the legislation, to put Irish street names up on streets across their areas, yet we have this myth perpetuated that the Irish language and the refusal to accept an Irish language Act are the big impasse in the talks.
We heart parroted again today—surprisingly, I even saw the Under-Secretary of State nodding his head—ideas about people being denied their rights on gay marriage and denied certain abortion rights. I simply say to the Minister that the whole point of devolution is that people in the regions of the United Kingdom have the opportunity to make the laws that they believe best reflect the views in their society. I would say the same to the Labour spokesman. If you want uniformity, do not devolve the issue. If you are allowing differences in different parts of the United Kingdom, respect devolution and respect the views of the parties elected to those Assemblies, who, by the way, stand on their manifestos, who do not hide their view. We have never hidden our views on these issues in our manifestos; people vote for us on the basis of our manifestos and we then have a duty to reflect that in the decisions that are made.
It is not about rights, of course, because, despite all the rhetoric from Sinn Féin about equality, respect, rights and so on, we have seen that when it comes to the rights of those who served in the security forces, there is no willingness to show respect. When it comes to the views of the people we represent on many of these issues, there is no respect there. In fact, there is a recommendation that we should somehow abandon the promises we made to those people. I say to the Minister and the shadow Minister, do not be taken in by the idea that that is the cause of the impasse in the talks.
We have been told that the issue is Brexit. I find that very strange coming from Sinn Féin, because the one party that will not shape the Brexit talks, the negotiations or the outcome of Brexit decisions in this House is Sinn Féin, because its Members do not attend. Yet they want a broad coalition against Brexit. The Social Democratic and Labour party does not like to say that it wants to get involved with a sectarian pact with Sinn Féin, so it is trying to portray it as a liberal, progressive pact against Brexit, which also includes the Alliance party, which seems a bit reluctant, and the Greens. Let us not be in any doubt: any pact on any seats that involves Sinn Féin and the SDLP is a sectarian pact—it is not about changing Brexit—
Indeed. We have been told that Brexit is another reason why we cannot progress, because the Government have been disrespectful of the vote in Northern Ireland against leaving the EU. The Government have not been disrespectful—if anything, they have worked well with the Administration in trying to address the unique issues that Northern Ireland faces, just as they work with the City of London, the motor car industry and other industries on issues that affect them. Of course, different parts of the country and different sectors of the economy face different issues, but there should be a method of fitting that in. The one sure way that we will not fit it in is if we do not have devolution.
The Secretary of State is right about the regional rate—a decision needs to be made. It is an important part of Government finance in Northern Ireland, and we need certainty. Councils have not sent out rate bills, because the regional rate has not been established—it is a source of income for them too. It is therefore important that a quick decision is made. However, as I said in an intervention, the Secretary of State must not allow the delay on budgetary issues to continue because there is uncertainty in Departments, which can have only 95% of the budget allocated, which has a knock-on effect. No one knows—even with the 90-day notice for voluntary and community groups, suppliers and so on—what the full budget will be, so the precautionary principle sets in, and those notices are given out. We will have to move quickly on that.
May I make a point on behalf of my party? There is no reason, even before the general election campaign begins, why devolution should not be up and running. People were elected to the Assembly and they have a mandate to serve in the Assembly. The way to sort out these issues is to debate them in the Assembly. However, one party in particular has made a list of demands. First, it said that it wanted RHI sorted out. When that did not happen, it said that it could not serve with Arlene Foster. Then it said that legacy issues had not been dealt with by the Government. I hope that some of its interpretation of those issues, especially on the unequal way in which terrorists have been treated in relation to incidents involving the security forces, are never accepted by the Government. Then we were told there were lots of new issues about equality and respect.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is not just that Sinn Féin have listed a series of unreasonable demands? They have said that many of those demands are fundamental prerequisites even before the institutions are established again, rather than trying, as he has suggested, to resolve them in the institutions. They want the institution up and running on their unreasonable terms even before they enter the place.
That is exactly the point I was making. These issues can be resolved in the Assembly. If we want to decide what position to adopt on Brexit, who better to do it than Ministers in the Assembly introducing the issues that affect their Departments and reflecting the difficulties that we face? If we want to sort out issues around culture and so on, we should do so in debates in the Assembly, then the relevant Ministers could introduce legislation that could be properly debated. If we want to deal with legacy issues, there is a role for the Assembly in doing so. These things can be dealt with in the Assembly—that is the place to deal with them, rather than saying that unless we get these things sorted out on the terms required by one party we will not have devolution.
This is where I take issue with the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire, who spoke about punishing Assembly Members. First, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North pointed out, if we are going to punish people for not doing their job, we should punish Sinn Féin, who have milked this place dry for the past 10 years, getting millions of pounds from it, but not doing their work. Secondly, we should recognise that it is not the intransigence of Assembly Members generally that has led to this position. Thirdly—and he should know this as a public representative—there are many ways in which public representatives do their job. Of course they have a role in the body to which they are elected, but they also have a role in relation to their constituents. The Assembly Members in my party who were elected have worked tirelessly at constituency level as well as taking part in the talks and preparing material for the talks. As for the notion that somehow or other they are lying around at home watching daytime television and getting paid for it, he should know better, and so should many of the people who have commented on it.
If we want to understand the situation, we ought to ask whether people think we are intransigent because we are on a jolly, it is great and we do not want the Assembly up and running. I do not know any colleagues who do not want to be back in Stormont tomorrow doing their job. I therefore believe that the Secretary of State can push the thing along by spelling out to Sinn Féin that the consequence of not getting the Assembly up and running is that decisions will be made here in Parliament.
I do not want to see that happen. I do not want direct rule, and I do not believe that it will be good for Northern Ireland or for the House to have to do that. The Secretary of State should begin to address the issue and, rather than using the generic term, “the parties”, should begin to point the finger. He knows how difficult Sinn Féin have been. In fact, they took umbrage at him, and did not even want him to chair talks because of his comments about the security forces. That is the kind of arrogance that we have had from them, and until that arrogant bubble is burst we will not make any progress in Northern Ireland.
Order. We have plenty of time for the debate, but if hon. Members take much more than about 15 minutes each we will run out of time. I have a theory, merely put together after spending many hours, days and weeks in the Chair observing the House, that most things that have to be said can usually be said in 15 minutes. I make no criticism of anyone who has taken longer; I merely make a plea that that is a reasonable amount of time to take. I call Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I join my colleagues in welcoming the opportunity to take part in the debate. I commend the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues for their conduct in the negotiations. At times, they have been disrespected by at least one of the parties, Sinn Féin, which has said some quite nasty things about them, but it is not easy to chair negotiations, particularly when some participants are acting unreasonably. I therefore want to place on record our gratitude to the Government for the role that they have played in trying to bring things together. And we do want things to come together. Let me be clear about that from this party’s perspective. Considering where we have come from in Northern Ireland, it is quite a remarkable thing for the leading Unionist party in Northern Ireland to say that it has no preconditions for going into government with Sinn Féin. Turn the clock back a few years and imagine that the leading Unionist party would be saying, “We’re prepared to go into government today with Sinn Féin without preconditions.” Yet it is Sinn Féin who refuse to form a Government.
I am told that “ourselves alone” is the literal Irish translation for “Sinn Féin”—the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is probably better qualified than me on that—and I am afraid that Sinn Féin are living up to their name on this issue because, as far as I can see, all the other parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly are prepared to see a Government formed, except Sinn Féin. The Government must be and need to be aware of that.
As a supporter of the peace process, I am now left with a very serious doubt in my mind about whether Sinn Féin really want to be in government at all. I am also left with a serious doubt in my mind about the workability of the mandatory coalition model as a basis for government when it gives Sinn Féin a veto over the formation of a Government, as it does. In truth, that is where we are. The government of Northern Ireland is being vetoed. The formation of a Government is being vetoed by one party that is refusing to go into government. Because of the nature of the architecture and the framework for government in Northern Ireland, it has that veto, can exercise it and is doing so at present.
If my memory serves me correctly, the written statement published by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland last week indicated that there had actually been some progress among the parties in the talks, and that those talks had not been a complete waste of time. It would be very helpful for the people of Northern Ireland—and, indeed, this House—to understand where progress among the parties has been made, and to narrow down the stumbling blocks that are being cast up by Sinn Féin.
In truth, although some progress has been made in homing in on the issues, it would be wrong to say that we have reached agreement on any of them. What are those issues? Well, they include the legacy of our troubled past, and the quest for justice and truth by the innocent victims. We have come a long way in developing proposals, which I understand the Secretary of State is willing to publish for consultation in the coming weeks. We very much welcome that. A failure to form a Government in Northern Ireland should not prevent the Government in this place from proceeding with legislation to establish new legacy bodies.
I say to the Secretary of State that, although Sinn Féin may have a veto over the formation of a Government, it would be the ultimate irony if we allowed the party representing the organisation that murdered more people in the troubles than anyone else to veto the legacy bodies and institutions that are to be established to investigate those murders. It is just absurd that we would even consider handing Sinn Féin a veto over the investigation of murders that were committed by the Provisional IRA. We need that historical investigations unit up and running to investigate those murders in order to level the playing field. As the Secretary of State knows, because I have said this to him and Minister many times, there is not currently a level playing field. At the moment, we have legacy inquests, the Kenova inquiry, the examination of the events known as Bloody Sunday, and a completely disproportionate focus on what the Army and police did in Northern Ireland.
I echo the comments made earlier that the killings committed by the Army and the police were for the most part lawful, and were about protecting life and the community. Of course, when someone has done something wrong in the past, the law has investigated, but it is entirely wrong that we have a legacy investigation branch of the PSNI that is devoting so much of its resource towards investigating the police and the Army, and little towards investigating the 90% of murders committed by the paramilitary terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland. That is not a sustainable position. After the election, I trust that the next Government will take forward this legislation and establish those legacy bodies.
I also say to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) that another issue on which we are waiting to get agreement is the armed forces covenant, which I referred to earlier in an intervention. Sinn Féin talk big on respect and equality, and this is an issue about respect and equality. It is about ensuring that the men and women who have served our country in the armed forces are not disadvantaged by virtue of their service. That is the very basis of the armed forces covenant. It is also about the wider community across the nation showing respect for the men and women who serve. Equality and respect is what we are talking about in relation to the armed forces covenant. We need Sinn Féin to step up to the mark, and all the political parties in Northern Ireland to agree to the full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
I intervened on the shadow Secretary of State to make that very point. While he was busy listing all the groups that he says he has met, who are demanding rights and equality, the one group he missed out were the 150,000 men and women in Northern Ireland who have served in our armed forces. That number is far greater, by far, than the number of people who speak the Irish language or any other minority group that the shadow Secretary of State bothered to mention. Add to that the fact that the armed forces covenant also covers the families of those 150,000 people, and the figure comes to half a million people. That is not my figure; it comes from Northern Ireland Office statistics.
Half a million people out of a population of 1.8 million would benefit from the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. It would be nice to hear the shadow Secretary of State and his colleagues say, for once, “Yes, this is something that we would want included.” I sincerely hope that the outcome of the negotiations will be that all parties, if they are genuine about respect and equality, sign up to the full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Sinn Féin are so committed to the Irish language that Carál Ní Chuilín, the party’s previous Minister in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in Northern Ireland, cut Foras na Gaeilge’s budget by £700,000 for the past three financial years? Sinn Féin claim that we do not show respect to the Irish language, but they could not even find enough areas to spend the money on.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give us his feelings about the discussions on the military covenant? I joined him on various occasions, and the party that we have all been talking about today that does not take part at least turned up once, but all they wanted was equality. To try to equalise their terrorists with our soldiers is an absolute disgrace.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. On this issue, our two parties are at one, and we spoke with one voice in the working groups dealing with the armed forces covenant, because we believe passionately that this issue must be addressed in the context of Stormont’s responsibilities towards a large group in our community—and I mean our community in its totality, because the armed forces draw from all sections of the community in Northern Ireland, and always have done, and that is something we are grateful for.
I want to echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) about Brexit. I find it quite remarkable that some of the parties talk about the need for a special status for Northern Ireland when it comes to Brexit. Yet, Sinn Féin refuses to form a Government, which is the one vehicle that can help to develop a consensus around how we deal with Brexit. Let me say to the Secretary of State that if we arrive at a situation where there is direct rule and we have no Government functioning in Northern Ireland, it will be unacceptable for this Government to pander to those voices demanding special status in the absence of a political consensus around this issue in Northern Ireland. It is not good enough to hand Sinn Féin a veto over forming a Government and then to say that parties would be excluded from the decision-making process around Brexit.
The Social Democratic and Labour party, the Alliance party, the Green party and Sinn Féin can gang up on the DUP all they want on this issue, but if we return to direct rule and there is no Government in Northern Ireland, we are not going to stand by and allow some kind of special status to be created against the interests and wishes of the Unionist community. There has to be a cross-community consensus on this issue—nothing else will work in the absence of devolution. If Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Green party and the Alliance party want special status for Northern Ireland, there is only one way that that will be delivered, and that is by having a devolved Government, so that we can build a consensus on this issue. In the absence of a devolved Government, Sinn Féin can forget it; they can protest, dress up as funny little customs men and go around the border pretending that we are going to have a hard border, but that will not wash with Brussels. The only way to deliver for Northern Ireland is either for us to have our own Government or for my colleagues and me to be the voice for Northern Ireland in this Chamber, and I fully expect a strong DUP team to be returned after the general election to speak for Northern Ireland in this House.
I say again to the Secretary of State and his colleagues that part of this is about the budget. When the Secretary of State or the Minister winds up, will he tell us whether the budget will continue to include funding for the mitigation measures that were put in place in relation to welfare reform in Northern Ireland? A lot of vulnerable people in Northern Ireland would like to know the answer to that question, and it is important, because we need to expose Sinn Féin on this issue. This House is making provision for the funding of public services in Northern Ireland, so it is important to know whether the mitigation measures in relation to welfare reform will be included and for how long.
Finally, the current crisis proves that mandatory coalition—handing a veto to one side of the community—is a fundamentally flawed way of democratising government. The DUP wants—this has long been an objective of my party—to move towards a system of voluntary coalition in Northern Ireland. We should move towards a situation where the parties come together after an election, negotiate and agree a programme for government. Those parties that want to be part of the Government can voluntarily go into government, and those that do not can go into opposition. What we cannot sustain is a situation where those parties that do not want to go into government have a veto over everybody else in forming a Government. That is not democracy; it is the very antithesis of democracy.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for taking yet another intervention, and I was tempted to make one because he was at the St Andrews agreement. He will recall that the Belfast agreement suggested—this was approved in the referendum in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—that the First and Deputy First Ministers would be jointly elected, but that was changed, unfortunately, after the St Andrews agreement. One proposal is that we go back to that and bring the parties together, putting the two names on the same ticket so that the Members of the Legislative Assembly have to vote for them. Is that an option the DUP would consider?
We will certainly look at options, but I have to say to the hon. Lady that that proposal does not solve the problem. If we are going to look at solving the problem, we have to be more fundamental about it—a sticking plaster will not do. That is why my colleagues and I believe that, in time, we will have to look again at the whole model of devolution and at the basis of mandatory coalition and whether it will work. It is certainly not working for Northern Ireland at the moment; it is delivering a veto that is preventing the formation of a Government at a time when we have huge decisions to take about our future, not least on Brexit. The people of Northern Ireland are being denied a voice because one single party, representing less than 30% of the vote, refuses to go into government. Surely that is an unsustainable position. While the Bill is welcome, it is merely a first step—a bandage. It will not fix the problem, and we do need to fix the problem.
In following the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), I should say that I was struck by the number of times he condemned Sinn Féin for using a veto—that from the DUP, the most veto-holic of all the parties, not least in relation to the abuse of the petition of concern, which other hon. Members referred to earlier.
Let me join others in referring to the grave attack at the weekend—the attempt to murder police officers and to use the precincts of a school to create disruption in a community and set up a situation where, yet again, officers of the PSNI, who serve and represent our whole community, would be under threat. However, I cannot join the attack by the hon. Member for East Antrim on the BBC for somehow making an untoward reference to that incident. He seemed to omit the fact that, in a debate I was part of on the BBC yesterday, his own colleague, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), referred to the attack in the context of the political vacuum that exists and that could continue to exist. That linkage was made by one of his own parliamentary colleagues, so for him to turn round and use it as an excuse to have yet another go at the BBC just seems bizarre and out of place.
In his opening comments, the hon. Gentleman said there was abuse of the petition of concern. Does he agree that the biggest abuse came when the SDLP and Sinn Féin joined together to stop Gerry Kelly from being suspended from the Assembly for five days in line with the recommendations of the Commissioner for Standards?
No. The biggest abuse of the petition of concern comes whenever it is used to prevent motions in the Assembly—even non-binding motions and valid and credible motions of censure—from having any standing whatever. If people are going to use the petition of concern in relation to motions of censure in one way, they should recognise that others are going to say, “If you are going to veto things in one way, you are creating the rules, and you are going to have to live by them.”
As on so many things, we need to return to what was originally provided for in the Good Friday agreement. The petition of concern was not included in the agreement as a veto; it was provided as a trigger mechanism for an additional form of proofing by a special committee in relation to concerns about rights or equality—that is all it was provided for. Unfortunately, the legislation did not properly reflect that, and it left things up to the Standing Orders in the Assembly, but those Standing Orders have never been right. Sinn Féin and the DUP have always been happy to leave the petition of concern as a dead-end veto under the Standing Orders of the Assembly. That was never in the agreement, as people will see if they care to look at the relevant paragraphs. Let us return to the petition of concern as an additional proofing mechanism for rights and equality, not as a prevention mechanism against the advancement of rights and equality in areas such as equal marriage.
The hon. Member for East Antrim excoriated the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and told him that devolution is the opportunity to best make the laws that reflect the views of society. I absolutely agree with that. I am quite happy for the Assembly to make the laws that apply to abortion and to equal marriage. The Assembly is showing a clear wish and a clear intent there, and there have been clear indications of where the support of the people of Northern Ireland lies—it is similar to that in the south, as shown by referendum. The problem is that the DUP is vetoing and stopping the devolved Assembly having that legislative power. The DUP is criticising Sinn Féin for not allowing the government function to be created in circumstances where the DUP itself is regularly using a veto to prevent the legislative function of the Assembly. It is a “Whose veto trumps whose?” situation.
I am entirely happy with operating the Good Friday agreement as the people voted for it—people of Ireland north and south. A petition of concern would mean that a mechanism could be checked and proofed. If there were not concerns in relation to rights and equality, it could proceed in the normal way through the Assembly; if there were, it would require cross-community support. I make no apology for my part in negotiating and drafting the Good Friday agreement and in helping to establish the institutions. I regret the fact that we have departed from the Good Friday agreement in so many ways.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) referred to the appointment of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Like her, I listened to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) saying that we need to change things and get to a different way, and that there should not be a situation where one party can veto. Let us remember that the St Andrews agreement limited the appointment of the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister to two parties and two parties only. It specified that the biggest party of one designation would appoint the First Minister, and then the biggest party of another designation would appoint the Deputy First Minister. There was to be no role for the Assembly any more in electing and having a free choice in the joint election of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as the Good Friday agreement provided. If the right hon. Gentleman is in any way serious about what he is saying, then next time we are tabling amendments in respect of changing how the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are appointed, he should join us in supporting those amendments, not oppose them. I checked with the Clerks as to whether the Bill’s reference to ministerial appointments would have allowed me to table such an amendment. I was advised that the narrow terms of the Bill would not have allowed me again to table the amendment that I have tabled in the past.
Given the way in which acronyms are used in this place, no doubt this Bill, which we might call the ministerial appointments and regional rates Bill, will be referred to as the MARR Bill. However, there is nothing memorable about it. It is purely ephemeral in the sense of making exigent provisions in relation to the striking of a regional rate so that rates bills can be issued and councils can get their take of the district rate. I regret that it has been necessary to bring the Bill forward in this House, but I support it in terms of allowing the revenue to come in to support public services, both those run by councils and those provided by regional government departments.
The Bill is also ephemeral in the sense of resetting the meter on the appointment of Ministers. I note that the Secretary of State has chosen a timeline that would broadly equate to what the timeline under the current legislation would be if there was an Assembly election on the same day as the general election. Therefore, those who have argued for an election on the same day can have no objection to that timeline. As we heard from other hon. Members, there is another coincidence in relation to the timeline with regard to the budgetary pressures and the fact that the civil service is now having to assign a percentage of the budget in the absence of an elected Government in the Assembly. All sorts of groups and budget holders, including in the community and voluntary sector, but not only there, have been given the indication that their funding is guaranteed, as was, for the first 13 weeks of the financial year. Those 13 weeks will bring us to within a calendar week of the same deadline that we have. That should concentrate minds—I hope that it does—about what the consequences of an absence of the institutions would be.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if there is no progress within the timescale set in the Bill, the Secretary of State needs to bring forward further legislation to resolve the budgetary issues, because we cannot keep going through the financial crisis that departments are currently in?
We have to use the timeline that is created here and now. We also have to use such good will as any of us were able to detect in the talks in Stormont Castle over the past number of weeks.
I personally would not come to the conclusion that one party is determined to prevent the formation of a Government altogether. I wish I had more evidence that I could point to so as to support my hunch that Sinn Féin would want to see the formation of a Government. It would be better if Sinn Féin would say more in public that gave people reason to believe that. In the debate I took part in on the BBC yesterday, I was struck by the fact that Chris Hazzard of Sinn Féin said that Sinn Féin would have a powerful position in relation to Brexit because of having four MEPs and because Dublin was going to have a decisive role as a member state. He put no premium whatsoever on the institutions of the agreement. At no point did he say, “The important thing that will help us to offset some of the challenges and threats of Brexit is having our own devolved Government who are part of using and activating the strand 2 structures that are the best way of doing things on an all-Ireland basis, with relevant sectors being treated as an Ireland market, and that being reflected and respected with regard to EU construction programmes and potential funding, as Michel Barnier has indicated.” There was none of that whatsoever from Sinn Féin. I can therefore see why people are worried about what it is saying about Brexit and asking, “Where are the institutions of the Good Friday agreement?”
Strand 1 of the Good Friday agreement would be pretty central to making those institutions work because, as we know from what happened before, strand 2 cannot be activated—we cannot have a North South Ministerial Council—unless we have northern Ministers in a northern Executive. It is therefore imperative that we get our institutions up and running. A failure to do so means that we are sentenced to the hard Brexit that people are complaining about and worried about, but also a hard Brexit in the absence of any devolved mitigation—any north-south axis that can be used, including by the Irish Government. Strand 2 provides that the views of the North South Ministerial Council will be reflected and represented in various EU meetings, so it gives the Irish Government a potentially powerful role. However, whenever Chris Hazzard referred to the Irish Government’s role yesterday, none of that related to the fact that they would be reflecting the views of the North South Ministerial Council in EU meetings. We need to get the institutions up and running, although I recognise that there are issues in the way.
I do not accept the rewriting of recent history by the hon. Member for East Antrim in relation to the renewable heat incentive. When questions were put to Treasury Ministers and to NIO Ministers about a Westminster and Whitehall interest in RHI, the DUP was seething at any such suggestion by me, by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), or by the two Ulster Unionist party Members. The DUP was completely opposed to a public inquiry. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley made it very clear on TV on several occasions that consideration by the Public Accounts Committee in the Assembly was sufficient and there was no need for any other inquiry. It had Sinn Féin on board with that position for quite a while, and then things fell apart between them.
Like the hon. Member for East Antrim, I ask why the Northern Ireland Executive did not produce a draft budget. Why are we in this position at all, with no hint or sign of what the devolved budget would have been? Let us remember that back on 21 November the DUP and Sinn Féin issued a joint article, stating:
“This is what delivery looks like. No gimmicks. No grandstanding.”
And that was when there was no sign of a draft budget. The DUP was quite happy to say that it was good government not to have a draft budget at that stage. We are now at a point when we should have long had the revised budget. That is what the joint article by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness said and it was accompanied by a lovely photograph: back in November, Sinn Féin and the DUP gave us the Mills & Boon version of lovely government. Then the wheels started to come off after the pressure created by the RHI issues in December.
What was the root cause of the arrogance that manifested itself in the RHI scandal? It was the fact that the DUP felt that it was not accountable to the Assembly and that it had been appointed entirely according to its own mandate. We heard Arlene Foster say that she had a mandate from the people of Northern Ireland. The DUP’s mandate in last year’s Assembly election was no greater than that which the Labour party got in Great Britain, and yet we were told by Arlene Foster that her mandate from the people of Northern Ireland meant that she could ignore the mandate received by everybody else in the Assembly. Given that she was not appointed by the Assembly, contrary to the provisions of the Good Friday agreement, she had no sense of accountability to it, which is why the DUP made it clear that it would veto any motion passed by the Assembly on the RHI. Of course, that is what it did, and in so doing it not only ignored the proper authority and its debt of accountability to the Assembly at large, but broke the ethic of mutuality and jointery in the offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers. That made it very difficult, if not impossible, for Martin McGuiness to continue as though there were no other strains present.
Those are not the only challenges that we need to resolve. Other hon. Members have touched on legacy issues, but unfortunately, given Madam Deputy Speaker’s advice on time, I will not be able to go fully into them. The hon. Member for Blaydon has referred to the Sammy Devenney case, which happened in my constituency. Conservative Members have also raised concerns about former officers being pursued and questioned about previous cases. However, although those cases have been presented here as examples of people being pursued for prosecution, they have actually come about as a result of new inquests about controversial deaths that have shown that some of those who were killed were not terrorists or gunmen as had previously been reported, and that therefore their killing was wrongful. It is entirely legitimate that legacy issues should be pursued and questions asked. Officers gave various accounts—and Ministers in turn, down the years, have in this House given false accounts—of those deaths and incidents. It is entirely proper that those cases should be well pursued.
Although there has been a measure of agreement among Sinn Féin, the DUP and the British Government—notwithstanding disagreements on questions of national security—on limited approaches by the historical investigations unit, the Social Democratic and Labour party wants more architecture on legacy issues, not least with regard to thematic approaches. The HIU is able only to produce individual reports on individual cases, and not to join the dots, show the patterns or draw on the wider lessons. It is also confined to looking at killings, but the troubles have many other dimensions and legacies of victimhood that are not just in relation to killings. People have many questions about the pattern, motives and character of the violence carried out by paramilitaries as well as, possibly, by the security forces, and they want those questions to be examined and tested. I think that that would give a more equal assessment of the past.
We considered those proposals in the Haass talks. Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan had particular ideas about a strong approach to thematics, which would have reflected the interest right across the community. It would not only have addressed issues of state breaches and allegations against state forces; it would have been very wide, open, thorough and responsive. We need to return to those sorts of arrangements in respect of the past.
We need to make progress on the Irish language Act, but let us be clear that part of the problem is that people are selling riddles, because in the St Andrews agreement there was a pledge from the British Government that they would legislate for a language Act, whereas the only commitment on the part of the parties was for a language strategy. Ambiguities and contradictions were built into it and some of us sought clarity at the time. Sinn Féin was spinning it that there would be an Irish language Act in the Assembly, but we pointed out our honest interpretation of the literal language. Of course, we were decried simply for pointing out the truth.
Whatever the problems in relation to the Irish language Act and the RHI issue, we need to remember that Brexit is the biggest issue facing us all. What helped bring about the discolouration in the politics around our institutions? The fact is that it was Brexit, which has made a much bigger difference to the political atmosphere in Northern Ireland than certain Members care to admit.
The hon. Gentleman says that Brexit is the fundamental issue. Given his position on Brexit, does he take any comfort from the fact that the British and Irish Governments and the EU have ruled out a hard border? Does he accept that there will not be one?
I accept that those bodies have given that indication, but they have not said how it will be done. The Prime Minister has been careful to say that she wants the border to be as frictionless and seamless as possible and that there would be
“no return to the hard borders of the past”,
but there has been no full commitment that there will be no possible borders of the future. Sector after sector in Northern Ireland worries about such borders, and the best way to prevent them is to properly use the machinery of the Good Friday agreement, which allows for areas of co-operation and joint implementation. It also allows us to take concerted action on a north-south basis and say that different sectors want to be treated as an island market. Given the EU’s historical position, that should be fully respected and reflected. If the British Government are serious about wanting to continue to honour the Good Friday agreement in the context of Brexit, they should allow that to happen.
That is what special status would look like. We do not have to negotiate a new special status for Northern Ireland. We have to have the full optimisation of the Good Friday agreement in the context of any Brexit, so that we can have the strongest regional say in our own interest and a strong north-south axis. We also need to use the east-west structures of the agreement, not least the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which can deal with all of the non-devolved issues that the two Governments have in common, as well as allow devolved Ministers to be part of those meetings, particularly when they touch on devolved matters. I believe that that would be a much more attractive facility for devolved Ministers than even the Joint Ministerial Committee on European Negotiation, because the common experience of all the devolved Administrations is that they find it pretty confusing and belittling.
Using the structures and mechanisms of the Good Friday agreement would give us the best answer to Brexit, but we will not do that unless we use the additional time given by this Bill to make sure that we form an Executive in the Assembly that was elected on 2 March.
I did not expect to get called at this point, Madam Deputy Speaker; I usually get called at the end of debates. The good book says that
“the last shall be first, and the first last”,
but today I am somewhere in the middle. It is always a pleasure to speak in this House.
I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Government on presenting the interim measures in the Bill. This is not where we want to be, but we are committed to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the democratic process. The Bill gives us all an opportunity to make a contribution. A number of valuable speeches have been made, some of which raised questions in my mind, which I will speak about later.
Until recently, we had a functioning Executive that was more than fit to handle the issue of rates and to make Northern Ireland’s economy prosperous. In the short time that I have, I want to talk about the positive things that the Northern Ireland Assembly has achieved. The statistics are quite incredible. Unemployment numbers in Northern Ireland dropped to 39,320 in 2016. In my constituency, the percentage of people who claim for unemployment dropped from 5.3% to approximately 3.5%. The Democratic Unionist party has achieved that by being in government in Northern Ireland, making things work and getting the business done. That is what we do—we get the business done.
We have supported the creation of more than 40,000 new jobs, smashing the target of 25,000. We have instigated £2.9 billion of investment, which is almost three times the target of £1 billion. Such positive things are made possible by a good Assembly in which all parties are committed to working together, without one party stopping the whole process. We have had £585 million of research and development investment—almost double the target of £300 million—and 72% of new jobs supported by the “Rebuilding our Economy” programme have paid above the Northern Ireland public sector median salary. That gives some indication of what can happen when the Northern Ireland Assembly works. It has delivered at the highest level, and the figures have been way beyond many people’s expectations.
We took control of air passenger duty on long-haul flights leaving Northern Ireland and reduced the charge to zero. That power was taken off us by Europe, but we will now divest ourselves of Europe and wipe the dust off our coats in that regard. If we have a working Assembly, we will have a chance to reinstate that measure and put ourselves back in the market for long-haul flights.
Northern Ireland received more than 1 million more visitors than previously over the past three years. We have achieved year-on-year growth in tourism spending, which reached £752 million in 2014 and has increased in each successive year. The number of cruise ships docking in Northern Ireland has increased year on year. Some 80 vessels and an estimated 145,000 guests came to Northern Ireland in 2016, and the figures for this year show that there has been even more growth in the sector. That is what happens when we have a working Assembly to which all parties are committed, but one party—Sinn Féin—is not, and that has to be addressed.
On business taxes, the DUP has continued the policy of industrial de-rating, which has saved local businesses tens of millions of pounds, protecting jobs and encouraging investment. We have protected the small business rates relief scheme, which has benefited many small businesses across Northern Ireland by approximately £18 million per year. Small and medium-sized businesses across Northern Ireland have benefited directly from that action by the DUP. We delivered a Northern Ireland-wide rating revaluation that reduced rates bills for many businesses. Since 2012, 525 new businesses have benefited from the introduction of empty premises rate relief. When the Assembly was operational, it brought success to the people of Northern Ireland. The DUP remains committed to that, and we are looking forward to other parties making their contribution.
For years, business organisations have campaigned for the devolution of corporation tax and for the setting of a lower rate. Those powers have been described as potential game-changers for our economy. Other parties had second thoughts and were not sure what to do, so they gave up on it, but the DUP persisted and secured them. A date has been set in 2018 for the rate to be lowered to 12.5%, but there is now a question mark over that, because Sinn Féin’s intransigence has made the Assembly unworkable. If the Assembly was back up and running, we could deliver on that, and thereby deliver more jobs and a stronger economy across Northern Ireland. The cut in corporation tax will build on the strength of our workforce and the comparative cost base that makes Northern Ireland an attractive investment opportunity.
When the Executive was up and running, it delivered, and it should continue to do so. This does not read like a non-functioning, defunct Executive; it reads like an Executive in which one party was working hard to deliver for the people of the Province, but which was unfortunately brought down by another party that aspired to be in control to push a political point. Members have spoken eloquently today about the political aspirations that Sinn Féin has pushed hard to achieve. The Assembly was brought down by a party that does not send representatives to this House to fight for Northern Ireland—Sinn Féin representatives never sit on these green Benches and never take part in the decisions made for the people of Northern Ireland who elected them—but that will ask people to vote for it in a Westminster election, even though it will return nobody here to work for them. That is hard to believe. Sinn Féin Members refuse to take their seats in this place to fix what they have broken.
Members of my party and I will stand in the forthcoming election as people who work hard on the ground for our constituents. We work hard in this place, as the statistics show, for our constituencies, people and country. We are left in a position in which the Secretary of State has to step in. I am thankful for his willingness to do so, but that is not what we want or what the people of Northern Ireland deserve, and it must change.
Just a few weeks ago, the hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott)—he has just left the Chamber—and I had a very constructive meeting with the chief executive of the Education Authority, at which we pressed for funds for outdoor centres. The chief executive indicated that even before the setting of the budget, the EA was £73 million short this year on its education spend. If it is short to that extent when the Assembly is not functioning, what will happen if the situation continues?
Does my hon. Friend recognise that even if the Secretary of State took powers to handle all the budgetary issues, the pattern of spending would be as established in previous years of the Assembly—no new initiatives could be implemented, because the power would be simply to disburse the funds on the basis on which they had previously been distributed—even though the priorities might now be different? Taking over budgetary powers will not resolve the issues that my hon. Friend is talking about.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Taking those powers will not address the issues, and we cannot address the issues because we do not have a working Assembly—if we did, we could at least make some decisions. We need the Finance Minister to bring forward a budget, as others have indicated, and we need all parties to be committed to the Executive. It is very frustrating to be in this position.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) referred to the case that the shadow Secretary of State raised. I look on the shadow Secretary of State as a friend—I wish him well in his retirement—so I was disappointed by the fact that he did not give any examples of similar cases from among the Unionist community. He could have mentioned Bloody Friday, when the IRA bombed people and blew them to bits. He could have mentioned Darkley, where the Irish National Liberation Army attacked and murdered people who were worshipping their God. He could have mentioned La Mon, where the IRA murdered innocent people who were on a night out. He could have mentioned the Abercorn restaurant, where people were murdered while they were having a meal. The Unionist community wants to know where the inquiries are.
Does my hon. Friend accept that this is a pattern established by the Labour party under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has refused even to acknowledge, let alone read, letters sent by Colin Parry, whose son was killed at Warrington?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—I also look on him as a friend. May I make it very clear that I raised that case specifically to make a point about how long it has taken to resolve? I wanted to say to people in Northern Ireland and in this House that we have had 48 years to put the legacy thing right. I fully agree that the other cases that the hon. Gentleman has just spoken about could have been mentioned. It is unreasonable for victims’ families to have to wait for any length of time, but it is particularly unreasonable for them to have to wait for 48 years—that was why I raised that particular case.
My cousins and our family have been waiting 46 years for such a matter to be addressed. The families of the four UDR men about whom we recently had a debate in the House—Members on these Benches took the time to attend and offer their support—have been waiting some 27 years for justice for those people. We are looking for justice, we want to see it coming, and we want to hear people saying that throughout the Chamber—[Interruption.] I am quite happy to respect everyone else, and if there is a case to be answered, let us answer it, but to be honest, if there is a case involving our side, I want to hear people talking a wee bit more about it. I want to hear about inquiries for Unionist people who have endured some 35 years of terrorism—[Interruption]—and, yes, ethnic cleansing. Down by the border, people were murdered. Why? Because they were Protestants and Unionists. Why did others do that? Because they wanted to get the land. That is an example of what has happened, but we never hear about it from certain elements in this House. We are going to talk about it tonight, because it is a fact that has to be heard.
Order. I have a couple of things to say. Interventions are getting extremely long. Members are also referring to each other directly—we do not do that; we speak through the Chair. The whole tone of the debate until now has been very good, and I really do not want that to disappear. I understand the passions and the tensions, and I understand the importance of these matters, but the tone of the debate should be maintained as it has been so far. I call Jim Shannon.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will move on to my last few comments.
I thank the Secretary of State for introducing the Bill and for the positive contribution that he and the Under-Secretary have made to the talks process. They have tried hard to move the talks forward, and they have our support for the Bill. We fully support these interim measures in the hope that our Executive will be able to function soon, and that we can achieve more of all the things I have mentioned, such as reducing unemployment, creating jobs and prosperity, and focusing on what matters for the young people of today and those of a different age.
I hope that those who seek to stand in the way of democracy will realise what we have been dealing with for years. We do not enjoy sitting beside unrepentant terrorists, but we must do so as they have a mandate, and the country must function as a democracy. We accept that and we understand the process. They may not look forward to sitting beside us, but we have a mandate as the largest party in the Northern Ireland, and that is the definition of democracy. I say to Sinn Féin, “If you cannot work with us, resign your seats and allow those who look to the good of Northern Ireland—Unionists and nationalists, and all those thousands who designate themselves as neither—to do the job so that we do not have to come to this Chamber again with more interim measures, which indicate a failure for democracy and a worse failure for the people of Northern Ireland.” Let us be positive. Let us hope that this is only interim legislation and that by the end of June the parties will have come together. I ask Sinn Féin to make such a contribution and to step away from the high bar it has set so that we can have negotiations—with those from both traditions, and those who want a way forward—that will actually lead somewhere for the people of Northern Ireland.
May I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his positive contribution to this debate? It was really what we needed, because the debate was getting a little bleak at times.
I thank the Secretary of State for all the work he has put in on Northern Ireland, including going out and meeting people throughout the community and really listening to them. I want to echo his sentiments about the bomb outside the primary school, which is quite disgraceful. That sort of thing should never have been happening, and we thought we had moved away from it all. It really emphasises how brittle the situation is in Northern Ireland, and how it falls on all of us everywhere to try to find the right way forward.
I also thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) for all that he has done, including coming to speak to our party conference. I may not agree with everything he has said today—he stirred up the debate, which got quite lively—but we did talk about some of the issues that really needed to be discussed today. That includes the fact that one party is not in the House. It takes all the money and fees, but does not represent its people. It paints itself to the rest of the world as the cuddly bear of Northern Ireland politics, when it is in fact a very different kind of bear altogether.
We very much welcome the Bill and its provisions, and the breathing space that it has provided up to 8 June. It will allow us to put in place what Northern Ireland wants to meet its needs. Key decisions on the public finances were needed, and we know that when such things are put on ice, the most vulnerable always pay the price.
However, there are still great difficulties with the budgets. Schools I have talked to say that they are already working on budgets that are not based on plans for the future; they are just using guesswork. In one constituency case, the Gaelic Athletic Association, which was borrowing the pitches of local integrated schools, can no longer use them because the cuts mean that schools cannot provide a caretaker to look after the pitches, so people cannot now train for their games. In other cases, a mass of capital expenditure is needed in education. I note that the budget that has been presented has a 2.5% cut for education, and a slight rise for health.
There are a lot of problems ahead, and we need flexibility. As I said in my earlier intervention, we also need a mechanism so that when people approach politicians while the Stormont Government are in limbo, such information can be fed to heads of Departments and action can be taken. We need a little bit of such flexibility. I note that what is being put in place does not entirely have a statutory footing, so I hope that it will not lead us into a world where it cannot be challenged in the courts.
The issue of corporation tax was raised earlier. We would like to hear what the intentions are for it. The change was meant to come in during 2018. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that would still be the case if Stormont was not in place?
Several Members have mentioned that we now have 90 MLAs who are working away, with their offices looking after the people on the ground, but we need decisions to be made. We should be focusing on health, education and welfare, but we are instead being dragged into discussing the Irish language and other matters on which we are finding it difficult to get everyone to agree.
As others have done, I want to emphasise the legacy issues. We have to find a way forward. I note that the Secretary of State is looking at bringing in a consultation, and I welcome such an outcome, but we must at no time forget the victims. They must always be well looked after, and not just in Northern Ireland, because there is a mass of victims over here who are not properly looked after either. The Secretary of State knows that I am keen for us always to look after the servicemen, and to make sure that there is no equality with the terrorists, but at the same time we must find a way forward on the legacy issues. There has to be a solution, but it will need all of us to sit down, and pressure must be put on Sinn Féin for that to happen.
Because of Brexit, getting the Assembly up and working will be key. Whether or not those involved were remainers—I was a remainer, but the people have spoken and we must listen to them—we need their involvement. During visits to various areas, such as the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee visit to Dublin, and in speaking to others, I have found that Unionism does not have a voice, either because of the limits of strand 2, or because we have not got a Government of our own. We must have a way to ensure that all types of Unionism—not just the DUP, but the UUP and others—are listened to throughout the Brexit negotiations.
We need to have 18 MPs back here in the Chamber, not just 14. We need to make sure that everyone is represented. If we look into it, we find that 250,000 people in Northern Ireland are not represented. That will be key in the Brexit negotiations, and we need to make sure that our farmers in every constituency are listened to, just as much as we need to look after our universities, our businesses, and the community and voluntary sector. Our environment keeps being left out all the way through, and we must make sure that it is very much part of the Brexit negotiations.
I was fascinated to hear Members suggest that mandatory coalition may not be the right way forward. When I have spoken to the Secretary of State, I have many times said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again, so it is great to hear others changing their minds or looking at something different. We need to find another way of all working together. That may be a voluntary coalition, but if so, we must make sure that we look after the minorities, so that is not without its difficulties. We could even have a minority Government if the two major parties cannot agree, but we all need to sit down and find a way forward. I know that every single person sitting here wants solutions and can work together. One party that is not here does not make it easy, but that does not mean that the other parties here are not at fault too. With a little humility, and a little consideration of the RHI issue and a realisation that it was a certain party’s fault, we could all work that much better together.
I long to see Northern Ireland working. I do not want to see devolved government failing. If it is not working and we have to have direct rule, it has to be for as short a time as possible and as effective as possible, but it also has to be done by listening to all of us in Northern Ireland. I thank the Secretary of State for what he has put in place today. I hope we can get there and I look forward to seeing Northern Ireland really thrive in the future.
Like many in Northern Ireland, I am saddened that we have come to this impasse which has created the issues we are trying to solve. There are so many problems that need to be faced, but we will not face them or solve them by trading insults or abuse. I will attempt to be as positive as possible and I will avoid that well known pastime in Northern Ireland called whataboutery.
I pay tribute to the shadow Secretary of State the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) for his outstanding public service over many years, both in this House and in the years before he arrived here. Thank you, David. I know that all in this House will wish him well and those of us who have worked with him will miss him: his kindness, his tolerance and his caring approach.
I would first like to touch on what I consider to be an absurd and relatively insulting suggestion by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) that the SDLP did nothing about the killing of Robert McCartney in a bar in Belfast in 2005. His point is neither accurate nor well made. No one can criticise me on how outspoken I was about the murder of Robert McCartney. Sinn Féin, in the immediate aftermath, were still trying to pretend that it was the result of some sort of knife crime when I unequivocally pointed the finger at IRA involvement in that murder.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I would like to correct him. I may have got the location wrong in terms of where the murder was carried out, but I was talking about the tit-for-tat double murder of Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan that occurred during a period when Sinn Féin were in government. One of those murders was carried out in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I was simply making the point that I did not hear the hon. Gentleman, on that occasion when there were multiple murders involved, calling into question Sinn Féin’s fitness for government or his confidence in the Government in those circumstances. I think that that is a fair point to make.
I remind my hon. Friend that when it came to the Stormont House talks, it was the SDLP who submitted the papers on a whole community approach to tackling paramilitarism, it was the SDLP who put in a whole enforcement approach to tackling paramilitarism, and, in fact, it was the SDLP who wanted paramilitarism and criminality on the agenda of those all-party talks. It was the DUP who helped to veto that originally. [Interruption.]
Order. We are in danger of ranging far outside the Second Reading of the Bill and getting bogged down into specifics about individual parties. I understand why and where that is coming from, but if we could keep more closely to the Bill, that would be fantastic.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, but allegations were made and I felt that I had to refute them. I will leave it at that and perhaps sort it out with the right hon. Gentleman privately. [Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] We can sort it out over a cup of tea.
I am not a violent man, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Moving on, we are in this situation because of a failure to face a new reality. Some may not agree with me, but the difficulties and the fiasco around the renewable heat incentive triggered a sequence of events that spun out of control. People out there want answers and they feel that they deserve them. Many of those who want answers are not nationalists. I have met many Unionists who are horrified by the events relating to the RHI. I will leave it at that. Clouds of confusion or poking each other in the eye only make things worse.
I say to the Secretary of State that it is vital that no stone is left unturned until devolution is restored in Northern Ireland. We have massive problems that must be faced. Northern Ireland is suffering from a total lack of confidence in its institutions. There are many issues facing us, but four jump out. The first is Brexit. Northern Ireland voted against it and to my mind it will be very difficult for Northern Ireland. The issue is multi-layered, but I will take just one example. I am being inundated by community groups and community workers from peace building groups from various marginalised communities who are heavily dependent on European peace funds to carry out their work. Those groups are currently facing collapse through lack of funding. They are not from any particular tribe or side of the political divide.
The second issue is our economy. The delay in the reduction in corporation tax was mentioned earlier. Aside from corporation tax, there was meant to be a prosperity dividend following the peace process. It never came. To my mind, peace will not be fully sustained unless our economy gets a boost and real jobs are created. Currently, we have no budget. This has serious consequences, in particular for our schools and our health service.
The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) mentioned many of the problems in education. I will not repeat them, but I will make one point. We have very serious problems with underachievement, despite some very powerful successes at some schools. I urge the Secretary of State to work with me, the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) to do what we can to solve the crisis in underachievement in education in marginalised areas. It is frightening. I would be glad if, in conjunction with my colleagues from neighbouring constituencies, the Secretary of State or the Minister could find the time to visit some of those schools, because it is despair-plus-plus for the people who try to teach in and run them. These are the people who are really suffering now, more than any others, as a result of the present difficulties. We need to deal with the problem of education despair and disadvantage in these areas. If we do not deal with it, we will create an underclass of people with no stake in society and they will be disruptive to society in the years ahead. That is the narrow self-interest. The broad interest is that we have a duty to ensure that all children of the nation are treated equally.
Our health service is stumbling towards despair. Primary care struggles to cope when hospital waiting lists, in particular surgical waiting lists, are in great difficulty. I will not go into detail on that.
I want to make an honest point about the attacks on the Irish language and I hope it will be taken as such. I was tempted to make this speech “as Gaeilge”, but I felt that not too many people would understand me so out of courtesy I decided not to. I am talking about attacks on the Irish language, and the immature abuse that is heaped on those who wish to speak Gaelic. It is not a crime to speak Welsh in Wales, and it is not an offence to speak Gaelic in Scotland. I remind the House that 100 years ago the revival of the Irish language in my county, the proud county of Antrim, was led by Unionists, not by nationalists. It would be disastrous to hand the ownership of the Irish language exclusively to Sinn Féin. I will never agree to that, whatever form it might take. The Irish language is the possession of no political party or grouping; it is the right and the property of all, culturally and in all other dimensions.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) requested support for victims of the IRA. I could not agree more. Many of my friends were murdered by the IRA, and I am very willing to put on record my support for any campaign for justice, honesty, openness and answers for all victims and survivors, regardless of who they are or what their political aspiration might be. That includes every single victim.
A general point has been made about the legacy issues, and other Members have spoken about the details. I merely say that we must find a solution, and beg the Secretary of State to press on, because otherwise instability and discontent will be fuelled.
In the remaining few minutes or seconds of my speech, let me wish the Secretary of State every success in his efforts to ensure that devolution is re-established, because it is the best deal for Northern Ireland. I genuinely hope that the extension to 108 days will allow space for the restoring of the institutions. I also hope that striking a temporary regional rate will help to restore a degree of financial stability. As for the allocation of the billions of pounds that the Brexit people promised us on the back of a leave vote—as Members may recall, they promised us £350-odd million a week for the health service—I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that some of the money that is released is spent on the creation of a prosperity process that will deal with educational underachievement and strengthen the health service so that it is able to cope with the demand in Northern Ireland.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in the debate, and to follow the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell). I welcome the Bill, as far as it goes. It is necessary, but unfortunate. There is now a new deadline, but as it is the same deadline that was imposed for the first set of talks, it is, in fact, not really a deadline. Let me say to the Secretary of State, with great respect, that he may find that a hard rather than a soft deadline would produce more dividends by making it clear to some people during the talks process that it is time for them to make their minds up and decide whether or not they really want devolution.
Whatever our differences are on these Benches—there are three Northern Ireland Benches here, and things can get heated at times, especially when Members talk about historical events—the one thing that binds us together is the fact that we are here to represent not just the people who voted for us, but all the people in our constituencies. We all take our seats, and we all speak up and stand up for Northern Ireland. Whatever differences there may be between us, that is something that we have in common.
In recent days, eulogies have been delivered about the former Deputy First Minister, who passed away. Some people said that he had gone down a certain path because he had no choice, but other people who grew up in places like Londonderry and west Belfast at the same time—people like John Hume and John Cushnahan, in west Belfast—did not take up an Armalite or a bomb. It could be said that they came from the same background, but, although they chose a different path from my colleagues and me in terms of their politics and outlook, it was a democratic path. They deserve praise and honour for that, but it is sometimes easily forgotten.
We have, of course, been here before. Not so long ago, we had to pass emergency legislation to sort out the issue of welfare reform in Northern Ireland. That was another crisis that led to intensive talks and agreements. It was another crisis that was brought about because some Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, for whatever reason—we will not go into the details tonight—did not want to make the decision to implement welfare changes that were an inevitable result of changes agreed to here at Westminster. We opposed those changes, but we accepted that a budget had been set and we had to get on with the reality of the situation that had presented itself to us. We brought in mitigations, but, sadly, some of them may be at risk if we do not get devolution up and running.
Sinn Féin, however, appeared willing—in fact, was willing—to allow this Parliament, whose authority, legitimacy and validity it questions, queries and lambasts all the time, to do the heavy lifting and implement the hard decisions that were necessary. Indeed, I understand that Westminster still has the legal authority until the end of this year, because the sunset clause has not yet kicked in. There has not been a word about that from Sinn Féin. The sovereign Westminster Parliament has full control in that regard, yet we are told that in no circumstances must there be a return to direct rule. There has already been a partial return to direct rule in respect of welfare reform, and Sinn Féin agreed to it. That is the reality.
Let me make our position very clear. We want devolution to be restored in Northern Ireland. Those of us who sit in Westminster might have more influence if matters were to be decided here, but it would be far less influence than the influence that Members of the Legislative Assembly—members of all parties—would have in Stormont in deciding on the affairs of Northern Ireland. That is what we want to see.
The right hon. Gentleman has made a valuable point. We are heading towards a general election campaign, and harsh words will be said by one party about another, because that is what happens during general election campaigns. Will he take this opportunity to reassure the people of Northern Ireland that even during the campaign, there will be low-level discussions—perhaps not even low-level discussions—between his party and Sinn Féin in an attempt to get positive talks up and going immediately after 8 June?
We have made it clear that we are happy to continue contacts during the election campaign, and I am sure that there will be such contacts, at official and other levels. We have no difficulty in trying to reach out and secure agreement on the issues that are outstanding.
We want to make it very plain today that we do not stand in the way of the restoration of devolution, and nor, I understand, do some other parties to the process. We will form an Executive tomorrow, on Monday, on Tuesday, or on any day on which the Secretary of State cares to call the Assembly together. We will go into government, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) said, people should not take that for granted. People should not just say, “That is okay.” Given what we have come through, as a community and as political representatives, representing people who have been on the receiving end of IRA bombs, bullets and all the rest of it, we are making a massive statement. However, we are prepared to do that, and willing to do that, for some of the reasons given by the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell). He mentioned education and the levels of underachievement in places like north, east and south Belfast in particular, but also in many other parts of the Province. This is a critical issue, and steps to address it were being taken in the Assembly by the Minister of Education—and not just our Minister, but previous Ministers as well.
I wish that that work could continue across government in Northern Ireland, because it is better that local Ministers who have an understanding of, and a feel for, these issues and know what will and will not work drive these policies, listening to people on the ground. That applies, too, to the health service and all its needs and the big decisions that need to be taken. On the voluntary and community sector, again we share common ground on the fact that people need certainty about budgets and do not know what is going to happen. Recently, Arlene Foster and I met representatives of the business community; right across the board, their consistent message was that they wanted devolution up and running, and we agree, so we will work to achieve that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) outlined in his speech some of the achievements of devolution. They are sometimes easy to forget given the general view that “Devolution never did anything for us; local Government in Northern Ireland never achieved anything.” Leaving aside the big prize of peace and stability, we must reiterate the benefits of devolution; it is important that they get repeated over and again.
One thing that is slightly reassuring is that, while in the run-up to January everybody said, “Get rid of Stormont; it’s a waste of time and nobody wants it,” and nobody was speaking out in favour of it, since it has been down, everybody has been coming out and saying, “Make sure you get Stormont up and running; it will be a disaster if it fell.” I just wish some of those people would speak up a bit more loudly at the time when difficult decisions are being taken by the Executive and the Assembly, because it is easy to join the general throng and say “Everything’s terrible” when tough decisions have to be made. With regard to what Sinn Féin is now saying, I read an article by Declan Kearney recently, in which he berated the Conservative Government; he said that since 2010 there has been a change in attitude from British Governments. He blamed the DUP, with no blame whatsoever attaching to his party, of course. There is a rewriting of the past going on: not just a rewriting of the last 30 years of the troubles, but a rewriting of the last seven or eight months. The House needs to be reminded that before January, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned and collapsed the Assembly, even though the RHI issues were being addressed and could be addressed and there was no reason for the Assembly to be collapsed, we had had a joint letter signed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on Brexit. It was a very helpful and positive letter. There was no issue then about special status or how this was a matter that would destroy Northern Ireland’s Government. We had also had a draft programme for government agreed that was out for consultation, and, indeed, it had received a great deal of positive reaction from most people across the community. We had also had a joint article penned by the late Deputy First Minister and First Minister in the Belfast Telegraph, setting out a very positive vision for Northern Ireland. There were regular and very good meetings happening between Sinn Féin and the Government and the DUP and others in relation to legacy issues, and all of that was being worked through, too. But now we are told that this was all a total disaster and that government could not possibly continue in Northern Ireland because of Brexit, because of the legacy issues, and because of the Irish language issues. Yet Sinn Féin went into government in mid-2016 with a draft programme for government that did not mention the Irish language; no such demand was made then, but suddenly it has become a demand.
Then Sinn Féin said, “It’s about respect.” Some people have talked about the use of insulting language, and I have to remind the House of some of the things said by Sinn Féin members. Gerry Adams referred to Unionist b******s—I will not use the expletive. He said that equality was a means of breaking Unionists; how insulting and awful is that sort of language? We did not walk out of the Government, however, and nor did we when the Secretary of State was recently disparaged and insulted by Gerry Adams in the talks process, or when the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) was referred to in insulting language on the radio, again by Gerry Adams. We did not walk out, either, when Martina Anderson stood up in the European Parliament and told people in the most insulting, revolting, vile language where to put the border. Indeed, I see that Mary Lou McDonald, deputy leader of Sinn Féin, was running around today in a T-shirt glorying in that vile language; what does that say to Unionists? What, indeed, does it say to honest, decent people who took a principled position to leave the EU? This is insulting to many of us. And as to when Michelle O’Neill left the talks and travelled down to Coalisland to stand there and eulogise IRA murderers, how insulting is that to the rest of us?
What I am saying is that there are issues that cut across both communities. On the way forward, yes, we can have another election. We are having an election on 8 June, so there will have been plenty of elections since last May when we had the first Assembly election, and we can have another Assembly election, so that accounts for another three months, but where do we go after that—to direct rule? If that is what Sinn Féin is really aiming for, I do not understand, for the reasons I have outlined, why it would want to go down that path. I welcome the fact that the Government have made it very clear that there will be no joint sovereignty; that is, in fact, against the terms of the Belfast agreement—the very agreement that Sinn Féin says it is committed to. The Government have made it clear that there will be no border poll, again because of the reasons set out in the Belfast agreement. They have made it very clear that the stability of Northern Ireland and its future is a matter for the British Government, and so it is. The only way forward is to have devolution.
A Member on the Conservative Benches said in this debate that people have had to make intensely difficult decisions. He referred to the Conservative party and the Labour party, and I want to add my personal best wishes to the shadow Northern Ireland spokesman, who is leaving the House at this election. We may disagree on many issues, but I wish him personally very well for the future. The Member on the Conservative Benches said that, despite the differences between Conservative and Labour, intensely difficult decisions were made by both of them during the political and peace process. He also referred to the parties in the south and the parties in the United States, but may I add that the parties in Northern Ireland had to make intensely and personally difficult decisions, too? We represent constituents who have been murdered and butchered by terrorists, and there are Members here who represent constituents murdered and butchered by loyalists. We represent and have family members who were murdered. Some of us saw close colleagues done to death in front of us. Some of us were personally attacked and assassination attempts were made on us. People had their offices bombed and letter bombs sent. We have been through years of this; we have made intensely difficult decisions, and despite all of that we are committed to devolution.
Some people say that we want to throw it all up in the air; we have come too far for that, but we need a partner to work alongside us in government. I have no doubt about the commitment of parties like the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and the Alliance to working for the best for Northern Ireland, but I begin to worry about Sinn Féin when it continually threatens the institutions every time there is a difficult problem. We need a partner that wants to work in government and that recognises the parameters within which we operate, which are that we are a devolved government that is part of the United Kingdom, but there are north-south and east-west arrangements and we all play our full part in that, and there is guaranteed power sharing and people’s rights are protected, and that we will leave the EU as part of Brexit, but there will be special arrangements, recognising the special circumstances of Northern Ireland across a number of areas. Because we share a land frontier, there has to be a different arrangement, of course.
So that is what we are seeking, and I hope that we can achieve it in the coming days. However, we cannot achieve it on our own. The Secretary of State will recognise that we have tried to reach out in the recent talks at Stormont, and we will continue to try to resolve these difficult issues. He is a player in all this as well, because Sinn Féin have criticised him, just as it criticises us, for not moving on the legacy issues. He knows the kind of criticism that we have to take. However, we want to find a way through all that. We are totally committed to doing that, after 8 June, and we will continue to do whatever needs to be done during the election period. I welcome the Bill and I hope that it will go through without any opposition tonight.
With the leave of the House, I want to apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who has been at the dentist all day—no doubt preparing for his photoshoots. I want to thank everyone who has said kind words about me, particularly those who did not mean them.
I will not take long, but I want to mention one thing that has stayed with me during all my time in this House. In the winter of 2007, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was doing an investigation into community restorative justice. I was sitting in a minibus behind Sir Patrick Cormack. To his left sat a mountain of a man named Maguire. It was a dark, cold night, and we got off the bus at a community centre where that man was going to speak to some young people. Patrick said to me, “David, that’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life.” I said, “What’s that, Patrick?” He replied, “That man just told me that he had committed two murders on behalf of the IRA. Now he is going in there to tell young people not to follow his path.” Patrick talked about losing colleagues, including Ian Gow and Ross McWhirter, and my heart went out to him, but he then said that we had to put those things to one side and act as parliamentarians. That is exactly what we are asking people to do today. People have asked questions about the blockages that are making it impossible to move forward, and they may well be right, but the Secretary of State and I both know that that is the hand we have been dealt and that we have to try to move things forward.
I reiterate that I do not believe any of these issues to be unresolvable. On equalities, I do not believe that asking the Unionist parties to move and to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom it is too big an ask. Indeed, I have been led to believe that a majority vote in Stormont in November 2015 agreed that that should happen, but the process was then blocked by a petition of concern. On the Irish language, we are asking for what the other parts of the UK have—namely, for the proposal to be put on a statutory footing. At the same time, we must recognise the real issues around the heritage of the Ulster Scots and put forward work to develop those areas.
On the renewable heat incentive, I reiterate that Sinn Féin should stop making its unreasonable demand that the leader of the DUP should step aside. That would be a huge step in the right direction. On legacy, despite all the criticisms, we need a system that will protect all victims, that treats them all equally and that, as far as possible, brings justice and closure to them and their families. I do not believe that any of those are unreasonable requests. We should call the bluff of those who are trying to block this process and get them back to doing the jobs that they volunteered to do in the first place.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend—I will call him my hon. Friend—the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), and I am pleased that we have the full support of Her Majesty’s Opposition today. I have had the pleasure of knowing him since 2010, when we served together on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. There are many issues that we do not agree on, and our politics may be somewhat different, but he is a good and kind man. I want to echo a couple of the points that he has just made. On women’s rights, he was right to say that we should stand up and challenge the situation. He also suggested that I should respect the fact that LGBT issues were a devolved matter, and I do. As an individual, however, I look forward to attending Belfast Pride between 28 July and 6 August, where I shall stand alongside the best part of 50,000 people from Northern Ireland. They have a significant voice that needs to be represented and recognised. I pay tribute to those on the Opposition Front Bench for their support, and for the bipartisan spirit in which we are able to take these steps to deliver political stability and good governance in Northern Ireland. This is especially important given the forthcoming general election.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State covered the substance of the measures proposed in this short Bill. It first proposes to give the space for an Executive to form, providing the framework for success in the final phase of the talks before us. It also takes the modest steps needed to set a regional rate, to provide certainty for ratepayers and a future Executive alike. Rather than covering that ground again, I should like to respond to some of the specific points that have been raised in the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) was among the many who condemned the terrorist attack and attempted murder involving the placing of a bomb outside a school. Many depraved acts have taken place in Northern Ireland over many years, but to place a bomb outside a school is probably one of the most despicable I can think of. I am sure that the community around that school will be appalled that young people were put in danger by those psychopaths, and I am sure that every part of our community will stand up and condemn this act. My hon. Friend also mentioned the fact that it was unfortunate that the rates were going to be set here, and rightly said that those decisions should be made in Northern Ireland. He also pointed out the impact on businesses of the uncertainty that sits over Northern Ireland at the moment. He said that he did not want direct rule, and warned of the consequences of its introduction. I reiterate that we do not want direct rule either.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) made a very succinct speech—perhaps others who have made contributions today could learn a lesson from her—and I thank her for her support. She rightly said that the political Administration in Northern Ireland should be taking the decisions, and we agree with her on that. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) has given his apologies; unfortunately he has had to go. He paid tribute to the brave police officers in Northern Ireland, and I completely agree with that sentiment. We should never forget them. He said that not a single Member of the House wanted direct rule, and I can tell him that no one on this side wants it. We want local politicians who have been given a mandate to take responsibility and to deliver an Assembly and an Executive who can make decisions on behalf of the hard-working people he talked about. He rightly said that good will existed among the people of Northern Ireland to try to make this work, and that it just required the elected politicians to take responsibility. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) condemned the attempted murder of the police officers outside the school, and I welcome his support for our police. He has long had a reputation of speaking up for them. I also welcome his support for the Bill.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) supports the Bill, and I put on record my gratitude for his support on issues of legacy, too. He has secured several debates in recent months that have given us opportunities to discuss this important issue, to get a balanced view and to make sure that the issue of proportionality is put out there—there is a recognition that 90% of the people killed in the troubles were killed by terrorists. He asked specifically about welfare, and the function of the Bill is to make sure that moneys can be sent through to the civil service in Northern Ireland. As part of the agreement, regulations are already in place for the civil service to make decisions. The agreement has been actioned in full, so the resource is there. It will be for the permanent secretary and the team to make choices about that money.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) regrets the necessity for the Bill—again, that sentiment came out several times—but he does support it, which I appreciate. He wants to get the institutions up and running.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a positive contribution, which is good to see because many negative elements have been raised this afternoon. There was a degree of “statto” in there being so many positive statistics that he wanted to give us. It is important to reiterate that devolved government has been in place and that services have been delivered as a consequence, and we need to keep demonstrating that this is about local people delivering for their communities.
The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) made a measured contribution in welcoming the Bill, which I appreciate. He mentioned the issues of corporation tax and asked whether it will be incorporated. It is a devolved matter but, as we have said for some time, the Executive are required to demonstrate their competence on moneys. There is a fundamental bit missing, because we need an Executive in order to demonstrate that in the first place. I agree that we want to see corporation tax delivered, too, but we need an Assembly in place to be able to move forward. I put on record again his support for finding solutions to the issues of legacy that affect all communities in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) is a good friend of mine, and he spoke with much warmth about his friend, the hon. Member for Blaydon. It is positive to hear that cups of tea will be consumed between the hon. Member for Belfast South and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley, which is the kind of politics we need to promote in Northern Ireland—a good chinwag over a cup of tea.
The hon. Member for Belfast South made an important point about the Welsh language. Gaelic is spoken in Scotland, and nobody should be ashamed of the treasured Irish language, which is a massive cornerstone of a culture across Ireland that I know many people in Northern Ireland treasure, too.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) welcomes the Bill and laid out clearly the merits of a democratic path. He reiterated his commitment to devolution, which we appreciate.
I am grateful to the Minister for kindly and enthusiastically giving way. There appears to be one key issue that he, to my disappointment, has not yet addressed. The issue was raised by a couple of people who contributed valuably this afternoon, and it is about Sinn Féin’s allowances in this place when they sit as absentee MPs. Are this Government prepared to take a hard-line, hard-headed and proper approach towards Sinn Féin, which does not take its seats but is still able to take advantage of a huge amount of public funding from this House for administrative and secretarial assistance? I say that with great passion, because I sit here as an independent. I do not have a party. I receive no allowances in support of additional secretarial or administrative assistance, and I am hugely resentful that the absentee MPs who claim to represent constituencies in Northern Ireland are able to be paid thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
I could give a diplomatic answer to a lot of that. My first ever point of order asked why Sinn Féin gets paid when it does not come here, so I will not contradict myself on that issue. The hon. Lady knows my view on this and, in talking about the future of the Assembly, it is about making sure that we create the right political space in which all parties can find agreement and come together to offer leadership for Northern Ireland. I could engage in that partisan debate. My comments are already on the record, and I will not contradict myself.
I sincerely hope that a deal can be reached, regardless of the broader context of the talks. We will all work towards that outcome, but it will be the parties that need to take up the mantle and deliver inclusive, stable government for the people of Northern Ireland. If they do not, it will be for this or any future Government to continue doing what is required to ensure that Northern Ireland has the political stability it needs.
I have listened carefully to the Minister, and I know his background as a former serving member of the armed forces. I would not want him to underestimate the importance of the armed forces covenant as an issue in these negotiations. It leaves me a little concerned when I hear the Opposition spokesman and now the Minister refer to issues in the negotiations and make no reference to the armed forces covenant. I would not want him to conclude his remarks without making reference to the importance of that issue and its full implementation in Northern Ireland. That is important to getting agreement.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I appreciate that this is about putting stuff on the record. I have a service record, and I have spoken to many councils during my time in Northern Ireland about the delivery of this issue. I will never shy away from making sure that our armed services and veterans have the best possible services. It is important that we constantly challenge people who are responsible for delivering that, and I assure the House that, so long as I hold my position, this issue will always be at the forefront of my mind.
The Bill will provide the framework for success, and we hope it will be the catalyst for the resumption of devolved government. With that in mind, I would be grateful if we proceeded with support across the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).