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Northern Ireland

Volume 626: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2017

The Secretary of State was asked—

Belfast Agreement: Impartiality

1. What steps the Government are taking to comply with the requirement for rigorous impartiality set out in the Belfast agreement. (900001)

5. What steps the Government are taking to comply with the requirement for rigorous impartiality set out in the Belfast agreement. (900005)

The Government remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast agreement and its successors. We will continue to govern in the interests of all parts of the community and to work in partnership with the Irish Government, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach, as we have done for the past seven years.

In the past few days, the deal with the Democratic Unionist party has been described as grubby, dangerous and desperate. Obviously, the situation in Northern Ireland is at a very sensitive point. Can the Secretary of State outline in a clear and cohesive way the steps that his Government are taking to ensure impartiality?

I say at the outset that I do not recognise the characterisation that the hon. Lady has given the agreement, which is about providing stability here for the UK Government and governing in the best interests of all parts of the UK. But in response to her important question about the Belfast agreement and its successors, I say to her that the Government remain steadfast in their commitment to those agreements and we continue to work with all parties, as I have done over recent days and will continue to do, so that the Government act in the best interests of all parts of Northern Ireland and continue to listen to the concerns of all parts of the community.

Over the past few days, a lot has been made about the extra money for infrastructure spending. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that that extra funding will be spent across all communities in Northern Ireland, especially the rural communities in the west? What can he do to help make sure that that happens?

The additional funding that has been outlined is for an inclusive Executive to be able to utilise those funds in the best interests of Northern Ireland. That is the most powerful, effective way to deliver on that. That is why I have been using all my time, energy and efforts to see that the Executive are restored. That is absolutely the best way to ensure that the points that the hon. Gentleman rightly makes are seen.

Is it not the case that in September 2015 there was a crisis in the institutions in Northern Ireland—long before any deal between the Conservative party and the DUP was struck? Is it not also the case that this particular crisis started long before any deal between the Conservative party and the DUP was struck?

My hon. Friend highlights the challenges that we have in seeing the Executive restored and the challenges that have emerged over the course of this year. He is right: it is so important that we focus on that task at hand and see that the time available is used so that the Executive are restored and perform in the best interests of Northern Ireland and all communities across Northern Ireland.

Surely the point is that, given the additional funding for Northern Ireland, the imperative will be on the Executive to reform and deliver for all people there, and to kick-start more private industry there to make the people of Northern Ireland less dependent on the state and to get better receipts back to the UK Treasury.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, who makes such an important point about the real opportunity that there is for Northern Ireland. We want to see jobs, growth and prosperity—to see investment in infrastructure and that enterprise-driven economy. There is that opportunity here, and we as a Government want it to be seized and to see Northern Ireland continue to move forward.

I wish the Secretary of State well in his efforts in the coming days to restore the Executive to Northern Ireland. For our part, we are absolutely committed to getting the Executive up and running again. We did not collapse the Executive and we are not setting any red lines or preconditions for a reformation. Will he be assured that our focus is on ensuring that money for infrastructure, health, education and the rest of it is spent equally and fairly across Northern Ireland, as has been our record in office over the past 10 years in the Northern Ireland Executive?

I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s statement of his party’s determination to see an Executive restored and, equally, that funds made available are seen across the whole community. This is about infrastructure, including investment in the digital infrastructure that provides the mechanism for prosperity to continue to grow in Northern Ireland.

On the issue of rigorous impartiality, of course we are committed to the agreements that we have entered into, as are Her Majesty’s Government. I particularly welcome the statement in the policy agreement that

“the Conservative Party will never be neutral in expressing its support for the Union”,

and that it

“will never countenance any constitutional arrangements that are incompatible with the consent principle.”

We are united on the great principle that we want to strengthen the United Kingdom, and the Secretary of State will have our full support in measures to achieve that.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that we will never be neutral in our support for the Union. The Government are proud to take that approach. Equally, we uphold the principles of those agreements, particularly the principle of consent, which has underlined and underpinned the activities of Governments over so many years. It is about the rightful balance between support for the Union and, equally, upholding the principle of consent.

12. I have seen the troubles at first hand, so I know that the peace process has been integral to progress since then. I very much welcome the agreement with our friends in the Democratic Unionist party, but what more can the Government do to reassure all the people of Northern Ireland that the agreement will not jeopardise this process? That is the chief concern at the moment. (900013)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. This agreement underlines our steadfast commitment to the Belfast agreement and its successors. Indeed, I have been working with all major parties in the Executive in recent days to see the restoration of that Executive—one of the key bodies under the Good Friday agreement. That remains such an important outcome to achieve.

It is clear that other parties in Northern Ireland have serious concerns about the Good Friday agreement as a result of the deal that the UK Government have done with the DUP. What guarantees can the Secretary of State offer that the confidence and supply agreement does not threaten the impartiality of the UK Government? What assurances can he give us that the Prime Minister’s reliance on DUP votes to remain in power does not compromise his position? Finally, given the sword of Damocles clause—offering support on a case-by-case basis— how can any of us be sure that the UK Government will not be compromised when it suits the DUP?

The agreement relates to what happens here at Westminster. I am not part of those discussions or the envisaged committee, but there are important reasons for the role I play in Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady makes various assertions and characterisations. It is worth underlining that I have been working closely with the Irish Government in recent days as part of the restoration of the Executive, and they noted in their response that they welcomed the British Government’s commitment to

“govern in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland.”

That principle will guide our actions.

Notwithstanding the commitment to parity in the Good Friday agreement, does my right hon. Friend agree that the military covenant needs to be applied throughout the country, regardless of where servicemen and women live?

I do uphold the military covenant. The Conservative party has made great strides in rolling it out across the UK, and the Government remain committed to that. We will work with the Executive and all the parties so that the benefit of the military covenant is felt in all parts of the UK.

May I begin by paying tribute to Northern Ireland Members from all parties who lost their seats at the election? I pay particular tribute to Mark Durkan, who served this Parliament and Northern Irish politics with such distinction for so long. I also welcome all new Members from Northern Ireland to the House.

I do not doubt for a minute the good faith of the Secretary of State, and I wish him well in trying to bring about the power-sharing Executive, but he must acknowledge that his desire to look impartial has been compromised by the arrangements with the DUP. I would like to know what advice he gave the Prime Minister. Did he tell her that she was making his life that much harder?

May I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place? I know the role that he has played previously in Northern Ireland, and I welcome his experience on to the Labour Front Bench. I join him in recognising those who served previously in the House. I pay tribute to his predecessor, Dave Anderson, for the very constructive approach that he took. I would also like to recognise my colleague Kris Hopkins, who, as my Minister, played an extraordinary role. I also recognise my colleague Lord Dunlop.

The hon. Gentleman makes the point about Mark Durkan—another colleague who has served in the House—and it is notable that Mark Durkan is reported as saying that there is nothing in the Good Friday agreement that prevents agreements between parties in Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic of Ireland or the UK Government. It is the principles of those agreements that we continue to uphold in the actions that we take, and we see nothing inconsistent with the agreement that was reached this week in terms of our actions and the role that we play in Northern Ireland.

I acknowledge all the points the Secretary of State has just made, but he knows from his experience and mine that trust is absolutely vital in Northern Ireland, and there is a danger that that trust between parties and in the Governments will be eroded over time if one party is seen as having the ear of the Government. Transparency is the key to avoiding that, so can he commit that, in addition to being transparent in the initial agreement, all subsequent agreements and all the minutes of the DUP-Tory co-ordination committee will be published so we know exactly what is going on?

This issue of impartiality, and the principle of working across all communities and with fairness to all communities, is one that we steadfastly uphold. That is why I will continue to work and engage with all parties and, indeed, community groups and sectors across Northern Ireland in the role that I uphold. I think the hon. Gentleman has seen from the actions that we have taken in publishing the confidence and supply agreement and the financial statement that sits alongside it that that transparency has been provided.

Power Sharing

The overriding priority for the UK Government in Northern Ireland remains the restoration of devolved power-sharing government in Stormont. The UK Government are working with the main Northern Ireland parties and, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach, the Irish Government to restore a fully functioning inclusive Executive and Assembly. But time is short. I would urge all concerned to use the narrow window that remains to look beyond their differences and to see that an Executive is formed.

Like many Members, I have been assisting constituents who are former members of Her Majesty’s armed forces and who served in Northern Ireland with distinction during the troubles. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House the extent to which disagreement over reforming the unfair legacy case process is a sticking point in restoring power sharing?

I think that there is a growing consensus that the next stage needs to be the publication of a consultation around the Stormont House agreement bodies, which are founded on the principle of fairness and proportionality, and it is that that has come through from the discussions that we have had.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any return to direct rule in Northern Ireland would be a huge backward step and that devolution is really the only good way forward?

I do agree with the comments of my hon. Friend. An Executive—an inclusive Executive—acting in the best interests of Northern Ireland is profoundly what Northern Ireland needs and what the people voted for, and that is where our focus must lie.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the armed forces covenant has been the subject of talks in Northern Ireland because of the lack of full implementation. Does he agree that the party blocking that implementation talks a lot about rights and respect? It needs to do the right thing and stop being a barrier to the support that the veterans in Northern Ireland need.

May I welcome the hon. Lady to her position? I am sure that the experience she has—over legacy, and over so many parts of Northern Ireland—will enrich the debate in the House.

We obviously stand by our commitments in relation to the military covenant—wanting to see that felt in all parts of the UK—and we look forward to working with all parties and all communities across Northern Ireland and the UK to see that that happens.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the vast majority of the public in Northern Ireland are very interested to see who actually pays and funds the political parties in Northern Ireland? As part of his ongoing discussions, will he therefore have the courage of his convictions and make sure that there is an end to the anonymity of political donations in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point, which she has made on a number of occasions in the House. I think she will have seen the commitment in my party’s manifesto over the transparency of political donations. I look forward to moving ahead and seeing that that is actually implemented.

13. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the disgraceful treatment of my constituent, Major Dennis Hutchings, and other ex-service personnel will continue to be an important element of his discussions? (900014)

I recognise the way in which my hon. Friend has championed the cause of her constituent. I know she will appreciate that there are legal proceedings outstanding that mean that I cannot comment in detail, but I hope she appreciates the Government’s desire to see fair, balanced and proportionate mechanisms put in place for dealing with the issues of the past.

May I associate myself with the generous comments the Secretary of State made about Kris Hopkins, who is a good and decent man? I welcome the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), my seventh opponent, to the Government Dispatch Box. Unlike all her predecessors, she lacks a little close combat experience, except, of course, from her time in the Whips Office.

We all hope that there is a re-establishment of the Executive tomorrow, but should that not happen, Ministers must obviously be undertaking some contingency planning. What structures would they like to see in place to ensure impartiality in the disbursement of the additional money?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about Kris Hopkins, who served in the House with distinction, including in the role that he played in the Northern Ireland Office.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that our focus is on seeing that an Executive is restored. I have been clear on not wanting to pre-empt what may happen should that not be the case. Obviously, there would be profound and serious implications in that context. I can assure him that we will work with all parties, and indeed have discussions with his party and others across the House, to see that these issues are considered very carefully, but our focus—

Security Situation

The terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland remains unchanged at “severe”—namely, an attack is highly likely. The need for vigilance remains, and I pay tribute to the brave men and women who work to keep communities safe. They will always have this Government’s fullest support.

Last December, the Secretary of State assured me in the Chamber that he would be unswerving and unstinting in underlining the huge contribution of our armed forces, so will the Minister join me in welcoming the commitment in our manifesto that the bodies envisaged in the Stormont House agreement will be fair, balanced and proportionate to former soldiers?

Yes, I do reiterate that commitment in our manifesto. We continue to focus on implementing the Stormont House agreement and creating new bodies that will be fair, balanced and proportionate. The next phase, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has outlined, is to consult publicly on the detail of those bodies’ workings.

As the Member of Parliament in the west of the Province who takes his seat, may I ask the Minister whether she is aware of the fact that security has been getting worse in the west of Northern Ireland, particularly the north-west? Will she review the problems associated with the bomb disposal team in getting them to the places where problems have occurred?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s experience in this area and would be more than delighted to meet him to hear more about his specific concerns. As a new Minister, I have endeavoured to be in touch straight away with all the Northern Ireland MPs and those in the House with an interest. We must be vigilant, as I said earlier, and I look forward to further detail from him.

Will the Minister ensure that she and the Secretary of State play a full part in the Government’s forthcoming review of counter-terrorism strategy to reflect the lethal nature of the domestic terrorism threat in Norther Ireland? [Interruption.]

There is far too much noise and too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. There has been extensive interest in all parts of the House in Northern Ireland in recent weeks; there ought to be interest in these matters being treated of in the Chamber today.

The short answer is yes. Both I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will endeavour to ensure that security is at the forefront of all that we do.

The Minister will know that many terrorists have been brought back to Northern Ireland to face justice under the European arrest warrant. Will she commit today from the Dispatch Box that this Government will keep that arrest warrant post-Brexit?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that all such matters are for negotiation and are in the hands of my right hon. Friend the Brexit Secretary. We enjoy strong working relationships with our counterparts in the Irish Government. We intend to continue that, in the service of all the communities of Northern Ireland.

Leaving the EU: Free Movement of People

4. What assessment he has made of the implications of exiting the EU for the free movement of people between Northern Ireland and the (a) Republic of Ireland and (b) rest of the UK. (900004)

The Government want to protect the ability to move freely between the UK and Ireland, which is an essential part of economic integration and daily community life. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed in this House last November, there will be no change, alteration or impediment to movement within the UK.

The simplest way to ensure that free movement continues unimpeded across these islands is to accept that there will in reality be no increased border checks or in-country controls on EU nationals after Brexit—any controls occurring in-country. That is what the Home Secretary has previously suggested. Will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland confirm that that remains the Government’s thinking?

We want to maintain the common travel area, which has served us so well over so many decades. Equally, we want to work with the Irish Government to ensure that the external border is upheld and strengthened. That remains our focus.

Leaving the EU: Border

6. What steps he is taking to ensure that there is no hard border with the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (900006)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in her letter to Donald Tusk that we want to avoid a return to a hard border—nobody wishes to return to the border of the old days— and to maintain the common travel area. That desire is shared with the Republic of Ireland and the European Union, and we shall work tirelessly to achieve it.

Northern Ireland is as much part of the United Kingdom as Dartford, but does the Minister agree that, given Northern Ireland’s unique situation, it is essential that there is a frictionless border between it and the Republic, without ever compromising the security of the whole of the United Kingdom?

Yes, I do agree. We all want to see people and goods moving as freely as possible across the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in the service of a strong economy for those who need it.

Mindful of the worryingly high levels of radicalisation of people in the Republic of Ireland, what assurances can the Minister give DUP Members that the soft border that is important for trade will not become an unsafe border in terms of security?

I value the strong working relationship between this country and the Republic of Ireland, which will allow us to focus on the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman. We need to preserve the common travel area and to maintain tariff-free trade with Europe. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

Economic Development

The fundamentals of the Northern Ireland economy are strong, with growth last year at 1.6%. Unemployment has fallen and employment has risen, but there is much more we must do.

I welcome the additional investment in Northern Ireland’s economy, to address structural weaknesses. May I urge the Government to reinforce their efforts to secure private sector and foreign direct investment?

I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do that, using our relationships across the globe. It is clear that, despite the progress made in recent years, special circumstances still apply to Northern Ireland. We want a strong economy for all communities there.

The industrial strategy and the national shipbuilding strategy give two key opportunities for the Minister and this Government to assist in building and growing the Northern Ireland economy. Will she facilitate discussions with us and Ministry of Defence colleagues so that we can advance those golden opportunities for our Province?

Under the terms of the Azores agreement and legislation passed through this House, only a devolved Administration can use their powers to reduce corporation tax, which would have an overwhelming beneficial impact on every citizen in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister guarantee that that will be raised in the talks over the next two days?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will do everything he can to ensure that those talks come to a successful conclusion. The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) simply underlines the need to make the reaching of that agreement a priority.

Confidence and Supply Agreement

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the peace process of an agreement on confidence and supply between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party. (900009)

9. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the peace process of an agreement on confidence and supply between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party. (900010)

This agreement provides stability at a vital time for our country and is in the interests of all of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. It in no way changes the UK Government’s commitment to the Belfast agreement and its successors.

We are now in the slightly odd position that each DUP Member is worth more than Ronaldo: I do not know what that says about their footballing skills. Does the Secretary of State agree with Jonathan Powell that it is now impossible for the UK Government to be even-handed in Northern Ireland?

Can the Secretary of State not see that the UK Government’s credibility with the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom has been destroyed following the £1.5 billion bribe for Northern Ireland, subverting the Barnett rules, as the price of staying in office?

14. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the Government’s commitment to use our high commissions and embassies to promote Northern Ireland as a place to do business, to ensure that Northern Ireland is fully included in any UK-wide initiative to boost exports and prosperity? (900015)

I strongly support the point that my hon. Friend makes. Northern Ireland is a great place to do business and as a Government we will continue to support that in all ways that we can—and in all other parts of the UK.