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Northern Ireland: Political Situation

Volume 626: debated on Monday 3 July 2017

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the political situation in Northern Ireland.

As the House will recall, following the resignation of Martin McGuinness, the then Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in January, an election took place to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 2 March. Despite intensive discussions in the three weeks following the election, the Northern Ireland parties were unable to reach agreement on the formation of a new Executive. In order to facilitate further discussions between the parties, Parliament passed legislation immediately prior to Dissolution extending the period in which an Executive could be formed until 29 June. Last Thursday—29 June—I made a statement in Belfast setting out that while differences remain between the parties, progress had been made and that it was still possible for a resolution to be achieved. I urged the parties to continue focusing their efforts on this, with the full support of the UK Government and, as appropriate, the Irish Government. In that regard, I want to recognise the contribution of the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, and his predecessor, Charlie Flanagan.

In the past few days since the passing of the deadline, some progress has continued to be made, including on the most challenging issues, such as language, culture and identity, but gaps remain between the parties on a defined number of issues. The Government remain committed to working with the parties and the Irish Government to find a way to close these gaps quickly in order to reach an agreement that will pave the way for the restoration of devolved government. The Prime Minister has been actively involved, following on from her meeting with each of the parties, including speaking to Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill on Friday night. I continue to believe that a deal remains achievable, and if agreement is reached, I will bring forward legislation to enable an Executive to be formed, possibly as early as this week.

But time is short. It has been six months since a full Executive were in place to represent the people of Northern Ireland. In that time, it has been civil servants, not politicians, who have made decisions on spending. Without political direction, it has not been possible for strategic decisions to be made about priorities in areas such as education and health. This has created pressures that need to be addressed, and it has led to understandable concern and uncertainty among businesses and those relying on public services alike, as well as the community and voluntary sector. This hiatus cannot simply continue for much longer.

There is no doubt that the best outcome is for a new Executive to make those strategic decisions in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. It should be for a new Executive to make swift decisions on their budget and make use of the considerable spending power available to them. While engagement between the parties continues and there is prospect of an agreement, it is right that those discussions remain our focus. At the same time, we will not forget our ultimate responsibility as a Government to uphold political stability and good governance in Northern Ireland.

I made a written statement in April that sought to provide clarity for those civil servants charged with allocating cash in Northern Ireland, to assist them in the discharge of their responsibilities. Some £42 million in resources flowing from the spring Budget and budget transfers from the last financial year remain unallocated, and they are intended to provide an incoming Executive with the room to decide how they should best be spent.

If we do not see resolution in the coming days, however, it will become urgent that we reflect further on whether clarity is required for Northern Ireland permanent secretaries about the allocation of those resources. In that situation we would also need to reflect carefully on how we might allocate funding made available to address immediate health and education pressures, as set out in last Monday’s statement on UK Government financial support for Northern Ireland, recognising Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances. If no agreement is reached, legislation in Westminster may then be required to give authority for the expenditure of Northern Ireland Departments through an appropriations Bill.

From my conversations with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, I know that we have not quite reached that critical point yet. But that point is coming and the lack of a formal budget cannot be sustained indefinitely. Similarly, decisions on capital expenditure and infrastructure and public service reform in key sectors such as the health service cannot be deferred for much longer.

One area on which there is much consensus, however, is the need for greater transparency on political donations. In line with the commitment set out in the Conservative party’s Northern Ireland manifesto at the general election, I can confirm that I intend to propose legislation that will provide for the publication of all donations and loans received by Northern Ireland parties on or after 1 July 2017.

All of that reinforces further the importance of the parties coming together and reaching an agreement. It sets out, too, some of the hard choices we face if uncertainty persists. I am also conscious that, with the deadline now passed, I am under a duty to set a date for a new election. I will continue to keep that duty under review, but it seems unlikely that that would of itself resolve the current political impasse or address the ultimate need for political decision making, however we proceed.

As the Government for the whole United Kingdom, we will always govern in the interests of all those in the United Kingdom. Therefore, if resolution were to prove intractable and an Executive could not be restored, we would of course be ready to do what is needed to provide that political decision making in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

I am clear, however, that the return of inclusive, devolved government by a power-sharing Executive is what would be profoundly in the best interests of Northern Ireland, and that will remain our overriding focus in the crucial days ahead.

The UK Government will continue to govern in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland by providing political stability and keeping an open and sustained dialogue with the parties and with the Irish Government, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach.

I stand ready to do what is necessary to facilitate the quick formation of an Executive once an agreement is reached, and that is where our focus should lie. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for his welcome efforts to keep me regularly updated on progress in the talks. I know that the Secretary of State, the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, and all the parties have been working hard to try to narrow the gap on the outstanding issues, in particular on languages, culture and identity. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has not come here today to say that the shutters are coming down on the talks and I admire his sustained—if slightly surprising—optimism that a deal might be done this week.

People in Belfast and across Northern Ireland will have heard his contention that there remains the prospect of a deal. If that is achieved, he will enjoy the Opposition’s full support in putting in place whatever legislation is necessary to enable the Executive to reform and the Assembly to meet. But there will be legitimate frustration among many Northern Ireland citizens that fully six months after the Executive broke down, and little more than a week before the marching season reaches its apogee on 12 July, we remain at this impasse. There will also be some scepticism about the likelihood of his surmounting it in a few short days.

Hard questions must now be asked about what more the Government can do to assist the parties in moving forward. It is encouraging that the Prime Minister picked up the phone on Friday night to the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein. But I invite the Secretary of State, in the new spirit of free speech that seems to be abroad in the Conservative party, to agree with me that the Prime Minister could do a bit more. He could tell her to get on a plane to Belfast herself. I am sure that Arlene Foster would not mind lending the Prime Minister her plane for the weekend.

History tells us, on both sides of the House, that the direct involvement of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach can sometimes help to bridge the divide in Northern Ireland and move things forward. It is a surprise to me that the Prime Minister continues to seem reluctant to take personal responsibility to break the deadlock. In fact, I think many in Northern Ireland would feel that the current Prime Minister has a particular duty to take some personal responsibility and get more involved because it was her decision to call an election in April that lengthened the hiatus and has taken us so close to 12 July, and her reliance on the DUP—a legitimate reliance, given the arithmetic of the House—that is being cited by other interlocutors in the talks as part of the reason for the impasse.

I agree with the Secretary of State that the hiatus simply cannot continue for much longer, but I would like to hear more from him about what he will do to resolve it. If it is not with greater hands on involvement by the Prime Minster and the Taoiseach, as I and others have suggested, does he think there is a role for a new independent—and perhaps international—chair for the talks, with fresh eyes and a new mandate? That too has been an important means of shifting things in the past.

I noted the coded warning that the Secretary of State gave, rightly, that if a way forward cannot be found, he will have to bring forward further budgetary transfers to give extra clarity and certainty to the Northern Ireland civil service. That may well be necessary and, if so, he would again enjoy our support, but I am not sure that it would provide much of a spur to the parties, because they are used to this limbo land after the last six months. I know he agrees with me that it is profoundly unsatisfactory for strategic decisions to be put off and for Northern Ireland to be in the hands of unelected civil servants, no matter how competent and well intentioned they are. An appropriations Bill may prove to be a bigger spur, but some—as the Secretary of State knows—will see that effectively as a return to direct rule. I am sure that that will be a position that he will wish to avoid and I would urge him to take all possible steps to avoid it.

I welcome the decision that the Secretary of State has taken today to legislate for publication of all political loans and donations received by parties in Northern Ireland after 1 July. That is an important step in normalising the politics of Northern Ireland, although it may strike some as ironic in the light of the recent deal with the DUP. Does he intend that the thresholds that will apply to that legislation will be the same as apply to donations and loans in the rest of the UK? Will the same requirement apply that all donors are registered voters in the UK?

Finally, I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that Northern Ireland needs its Assembly and Executive up and running as soon as possible. There is no greater illustration of that than the fact that we are now entering the Brexit negotiations in earnest. Northern Ireland effectively has no voice at that negotiating table; certainly not one that reflects all the traditions, culture and heritage of Northern Ireland. There is an absolute imperative to get the Executive back on their feet and to restore Northern Ireland’s voice. I am sure he will join me in urging all Members to urge all parties to make sure that that happens as soon as possible.

I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in underlining that core message. I appreciate and welcome the support he has given to the Government in trying to reach a point where agreement is concluded and we are able to move swiftly in this House. I appreciate the opportunity we have had to discuss these issues over the last few days and I will certainly maintain that dialogue with him.

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of points. He highlights the frustration of many people in Northern Ireland that no deal has been concluded thus far. A theme that I know binds us together is how we can achieve that conclusion, with an inclusive power-sharing Executive of locally elected politicians getting on and making decisions in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the engagement of the Prime Minister. She has been involved throughout the process. She met all the leaders of the political parties in London and has maintained contact throughout this time. As I indicated, in recent days she has, as she has previously, spoken to the leaders of the two main parties. He will recognise that particular interventions may not necessarily have the desired outcome. From his previous involvement in Northern Ireland he will know of occasions that did not lead to the outcome he wished for at the time, in places such as Leeds Castle, for example. Different solutions and scenarios present themselves in different cases. A defined number of issues remain outstanding and we need to give them our focus and attention, rather than extending out and changing the whole dynamic. We will continue to keep matters under careful review. Resolution is possible if the willingness is there. It is with that urgency that we must approach the days ahead.

There is opportunity here. I spoke about the additional funding that could be available to an incoming Executive to enable them to act and to take strategic decisions. It is profoundly in Northern Ireland’s interest for locally elected politicians to do that.

I will write to the hon. Gentleman and set out further details on transparency issues relating to political donations—I think that is probably the best way to do it—and I will put a letter in the House of Commons Library. I will also introduce legislation spelling that out so that everyone will be able to see the next steps very clearly.

Order. Consistent with what I said to the House last week, I am keen to uphold the tradition that Members wishing to take part in exchanges on a statement should be those, and only those, who were here at its start. I do not wish to embarrass individuals. A couple of Members who came in late are, very graciously, not standing, but that is not uniform. Those who came in late and are standing should not be doing so. It is quite wrong to wander in halfway through a statement and then expect to be called. Some people might even think it a tad arrogant, but there we go.

Regardless of the difficulties or disagreements among the parties in Northern Ireland, should not those issues be sorted out within the Assembly and the Executive, and not in this place? Or is it the case that one party, or maybe more, is actually looking for a rewriting of the rules?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his continued focus on Northern Ireland, following his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs in the last Parliament. I think all parties are focused on seeking an outcome and ensuring a functioning Executive, rather than fundamental changes to the rules. That is where we should focus our attention, because as he suggested, that is where I think he realises that decision making should happen—within Northern Ireland, within the Assembly and within the Executive, acting in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

It is disappointing to say the least that a deal has not been made and that the proper governance of Northern Ireland cannot restart. Does the Secretary of State accept that his party’s deal with the DUP makes reaching a deal more difficult? Does he consider the link between his ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), and the Constitutional Research Council, which made the questionable Brexit donation to the DUP, to be an additional and unwelcome complication? Why did it take three years from the consultation on increasing the transparency of political donations in Northern Ireland to get to a position where the Government are now announcing that they will be introducing legislation? The murk that surrounds this whole affair at times makes it increasingly difficult to trust that there is true impartiality on the part of the Government. What can the Secretary of State do to clear up the questions around the Constitutional Research Council and its donations, and restore confidence in the Government’s impartiality?

Lastly, the devolved Administrations are supposed to be involved in the Brexit negotiations. Can the Secretary of State tell us who has been providing the input from Stormont and whether it is less or more than the input from the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government? Very lastly—[Interruption]—what representations were made to him by the Secretary of State for Scotland about the deal done between the Government and the DUP?

Order. There was a certain amount of harrumphing from a sedentary position at the continuation of the hon. Lady’s line of interrogation, but I can confirm, in defence of her, that she was fully 36 seconds within her time.

Order. That is a matter of stylistic objection—or even, on the part of the right hon. Gentleman, aesthetic objection—but it cannot be said to be a matter of order.

It may not surprise the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) to know that I do not agree with the analysis that she set out in her questions. We stand four-square by our undertakings under the Belfast agreement and its successors, and the agreement relating to decision making here at Westminster does not contravene those important elements—something that is specifically spelled out in that agreement.

The hon. Lady highlights the issue of political donations and transparency. We conducted a consultation with all the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek their views first, and that was the reason for the decision we have taken today, reflecting those views and that input and the commitment in my party’s manifesto.

The hon. Lady highlights the issue of Brexit and contact with the Northern Ireland Executive. Obviously there are not elected politicians there, so we have sought to engage with the Northern Ireland civil service within the Executive, but that takes us only so far. That is why I profoundly believe that we need to see an Executive in place, to be an additional voice for Northern Ireland, strongly making those points, and to ensure that, alongside them, we get the best possible deal for Northern Ireland through EU exit.

Order. What an extraordinary state of affairs: I was planning to call the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), but he now seems a little disengaged from our proceedings. He toddled up to the Chair and I thought he was interested. He can speak—go on Mr Paterson, let’s hear it.

I came to apologise for missing the first two minutes, but you have called me, Mr Speaker, and I am grateful.

Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that unless we have a fully up-and-running Executive, we cannot implement the devolution of corporation tax, which will benefit every single citizen in Northern Ireland?

And there I was thinking that the right hon. Gentleman had come up to the Chair and just muttered some prosaic pleasantry, which I readily greeted. It is very honest of him to say that he was late, but I had not known that he was, and therefore as far as I am concerned he was not.

Regrettably, the answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is that without an Executive in place, the devolution of corporation tax cannot happen. That underlines one of many reasons why an Executive is needed to get on and ensure that that vision of prosperity and further investment can take place, and an Executive would absolutely aid that.

We welcome the statement, and let me say, for the record, that the Democratic Unionist party was ready last Thursday to form a Government and to appoint our Ministers. There is no question of any reticence in our party about forming an Executive, and we have been encouraged by the Government to do so.

Will the Government proceed to publish the legacy proposals in the event that an Executive is not formed? We welcome what the Secretary of State has said about donations, but will that be extended to include donations to political parties operating in Northern Ireland that are routed via the Republic of Ireland?

As the right hon. Gentleman may know, our consultation about political transparency concerned the narrow elements that were contained within that, but I know that other issues and other points had been raised, including the matter to which he has referred, and they will remain under consideration. As for the legacy issue, I think there is a growing consensus that we need to get the consultation out there, and show everyone the work that has been done on the implementation of the Stormont House bodies so that we begin to see that coming into effect. I earnestly hope that we will be able to move forward, and that it will take place following the establishment of an Executive.

Is not the simple truth that, whereas the Democratic Unionist party has managed to obtain £1 billion from the Treasury to spend on the people of Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin—Gerry Adams and those at Connolly House who are refusing to re-form the Executive—will be in no position to ensure that their constituents receive an equal share of that money, because there will be no Sinn Féin Minister in the Executive, and the money will be spent either by Ministers in this place or by civil servants in Northern Ireland?

I think the simple point is that an Executive consisting of a First Minister, a Deputy First Minister and other Ministers will be able to make decisions on budgets and all other issues throughout the community. The funds that have been outlined—to be spent on, for example, health, education, mental health, infrastructure and broadband—will be, profoundly, for everyone in Northern Ireland. All communities will benefit from those funds. I think that that underlines the need for the Executive, and the need to ensure that locally elected politicians are the ones who make the decisions.

We are pleased that the Secretary of State has told us that it will still be possible for the two sides in Northern Ireland to reach a deal within the next few days. He will know as well as I do that trust is imperative in the current talks. Will he explain a little more fully why he is so reluctant to try to seal that deal by asking the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to go to Belfast and attempt to bring the parties together so that the final measures that are necessary to secure a deal can be taken?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I stress that the Prime Minister has been actively involved throughout the process, and has been having meetings with all the party leaders. She had a further conversation with the Taoiseach last week about how matters were progressing, and received updates from me and from Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, that were received by the Taoiseach as well. There is that continued active engagement, but if further interventions are required we will, of course, keep matters under review in order to establish what will bring about an effective resolution and produce the Executive whom the hon. Gentleman and I want to see in place.

Of course I understand the points my right hon. Friend has made about the fact that the present situation cannot go on forever. However, one of the virtues that is required, and one of the many virtues that are involved in his arduous post, is patience. I hope he will be able to assure the House that he will be exhibiting that virtue even beyond the level of the proverbial saint, in order to put a power-sharing agreement and a new Executive in place.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support, and for his indication that some patience is needed. Let me underline to him, however, that a great deal of patience has been exhibited up to now, and that there is a great deal of frustration among the public in Northern Ireland. They want services to work for them in the way that is necessary; they want to see the transformation that needs to take place in certain key services. That is why an Executive is so desperately needed at the earliest opportunity, so that we can see politics performing in the best interests of Northern Ireland. That change needs to happen.

You know, Mr Speaker, that I do not often hanker after the days of Tony Blair, but if we had reached this state of affairs under his premiership, we would have seen not just involvement by the Prime Minister, but active leadership, and he would probably have made the statement to the House. With all due respect to the Secretary of State, it is a matter of regret that the Prime Minister is not here today.

The Secretary of State is right when he says that we need greater transparency on political donations, but he must be aware that the House has already expressed its view on that matter. The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 set the relevant date as being 1 January 2014. Why is he now seeking to change that?

The simple point on that is that it is about compliance with the regulations and seeing that those making donations are able to make those determinations based on the law that is in existence, rather than looking at retrospection. Obviously, there will be further opportunity for the House to debate that issue. However, I think that that is the clearest way of doing it.

While the political situation remains in limbo in Northern Ireland, elderly and frail British former soldiers are even now being brought before the courts on serious charges, while multiple terrorist murderers walk free, having served either derisory sentences or no sentences at all. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the Government remain focused on rectifying that inequality of treatment?

I know that this is an issue that my right hon. Friend and others have raised consistently in the House. I commend them for the focus they have provided. The Government remain committed to implementing the Stormont House institutions and that reform which is about fair, balanced and proportionate efforts in respect of the investigations of the past. That is what the agreement sets out clearly in applying the rule of law but, as I have said on a number of occasions in the House, I and others across Government will never tire of recognising the tireless contribution that so many in our security and armed forces made to ensure that we have peace today. Without their contribution, that simply would not have been possible.

It is not easy to establish devolved government. We achieved that in 2006-07 because the Prime Minister of the day spent 80 hours in St Andrews hands-on, dealing with all parties with the Taoiseach of Ireland. That is just advice to the Secretary of State; it is not a disservice to him and his colleagues to have the Prime Minister engaged heavily.

Given the £1 billion that has been committed by the Government, could the Secretary of State assure the House that in the absence of devolved government no expenditure decisions will be taken by civil servants on priorities for the expenditure of that money?

There are clear needs in Northern Ireland, which is why I made the point that I did on the potential need for further clarification for the Northern Ireland civil service in respect of budgetary issues. I also underline that last week’s statement recognised the particular needs and circumstances of Northern Ireland and that there are some urgent and pressing priorities. That is why I think an Executive needs to be put into place, but clearly, in acting in Northern Ireland’s best interests, we will keep that very closely under review if it is not possible to form an Executive in the coming days.

I would like to ask my right hon. Friend about the situation on the border, especially regarding the Brexit negotiations. As a Member of this House who was born in Northern Ireland, I know how important it is not to go back to the hard border that I remember from my childhood. Given that both the British and EU negotiators have said that they do not wish to see a hard border, how soon can we ensure that the situation is resolved to make sure that the people of Northern Ireland know that their future is more certain?

As my hon. Friend will know from her experience, the issue of Northern Ireland is a priority item in the Brexit negotiations. Discussions have commenced. We continue to work on that to provide assurance on the border and other issues. As a Government, we believe that a solution can be found and that there is good will on all sides in relation to finding that solution, reaching that agreement through the common travel area and looking at the issue of the movement of goods across the border to ensure that it remains invisible and seamless. It is a clear and firm priority of the Government to achieve that.

My party is also disappointed that the Executive have not been re-established after being brought down by Sinn Féin earlier this year, but will the Secretary of State confirm that only one party in Northern Ireland is insisting on any preconditions on the setting up of the Executive, and if those preconditions are unreasonable––including the prosecution of soldiers and policemen, the establishment of an Irish language Act which would cost tens of millions of pounds, the commitment by that party to overthrow its manifesto commitments, and a refusal to sit with Arlene Foster, who won the last election—they will amount to blackmail, and the establishment of any Executive on that basis would be fragile and could not possibly exist? Will he also confirm this to us today: has he given into Sinn Féin’s demand that there be no transparency on the funds it receives through the Irish Republic from foreign countries to its own party coffers?

I know that there are strong views on a number of issues. The hon. Gentleman’s party and Sinn Féin continue in discussions to find a resolution to these issues and differences, and they have even been continuing today, shortly before this sitting started. The focus needs to be on that. We must have an Executive performing in the best interests of Northern Ireland; I know the hon. Gentleman’s party has strongly indicated that it wants to see that. We will continue to support all the parties involved in this process to find that resolution, and to look beyond the differences between parties. We recognise also that the political process in Northern Ireland is very special, and that so many people have worked so hard to get us to this point. I think that the hon. Gentleman and others all want to see that progressing into the future, and to see that positive bright future for Northern Ireland across all communities.

The additional funds committed to Northern Ireland in recent weeks continue to be wrongly labelled as money for a single party in the Province. Will the Secretary of State reaffirm that this is in fact money for the whole Province, to be spent by all parties, and that it represents a billion more reasons for political leadership to be restored at Stormont?

My hon. Friend makes a clear and important point: the funding package announced last week was firmly for the benefit of all communities, so that we see investment in infrastructure, which has not kept pace with other parts of the UK, and to deal with issues such as employment rates, which are behind those of other nations of the United Kingdom, and also to deal with reform in certain key public services. That is to the benefit of all communities in Northern Ireland. We want to see the Executive able to make decisions and feeling the real benefit of that; that provides that real potential and real opportunity which we want to see seized.

This crisis has meandered across six months, two elections and, as of today, two and a half missed deadlines, but I still do not get any sense of urgency from the Secretary of State. There is a time for passive observation and there is a time for intensive intervention; why will the Prime Minister not go to Belfast with the Taoiseach and find a resolution to this that we all want to see?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we do want to see that resolution. Interventions have been made by the UK and Irish Governments and others seeking supportive voices to assist in the community and elsewhere to get the parties focused on seeing that bigger picture, looking beyond difference, and being able to get an Executive formed. We will use all interventions appropriately to get that outcome. That is why I make the point about the work the Prime Minister has done, the work that I have done, the work the Irish Government have done and the work the Taoiseach and Irish Foreign Minister have done, but I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that time is progressing and we do not want to see the sort of interventions I have highlighted in this statement. Time is moving on, and if we do not see resolution quickly, there will be a need to take various steps around the budget and other areas. We are still working hard to support the parties, but ultimately it is for the parties to reach that agreement, to see those divides crossed so an Executive are formed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of the urgency, attention, time and effort that continues to be made in that regard.

As the only Member on this side of the Chamber who voted for transparency of donations three years ago, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to bring that forward. In relation to resolving the impasse, can he confirm that the £1 billion announced last week will be sufficient, and that there will be no need for more money from Westminster to get this deal over the line?

The funds that were announced last week should provide a sense of opportunity and potential for issues that are clearly of relevance to Northern Ireland, such as the lack of transport infrastructure compared with other parts of the United Kingdom and the digital and broadband issue, which has lagged behind other parts of the United Kingdom. The funds should give a sense of incentive and opportunity for an Executive to deliver and get on with so many of the things they want to see.

Is the Minister aware that this impasse in Northern Ireland has been complicated by the fact that the result of the general election has meant the Government getting involved in a protection money racketing system of about £1 billion? As a suggestion, may I say that the only way to get rid of that is for the Prime Minister to call another general election? We know that she is frightened to death of doing it, because she knows that the Labour party would win. We would form a Government and get rid of this almighty mess. There would be no protection racket money, and we would have a decent Labour Government that would get rid of austerity. Get on with it!

It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman has still not recognised the result of the last election. The House will be interested in his comments, but I do not think that they will make a difference to solving the real problems that we are wrestling with in Northern Ireland.

If the impasse is not broken, and if direct rule is imposed, can the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations perform its role without the participation of one of the constituent parts of the British state?

As I have already indicated in my statement, we are firmly not looking at interventions that even get close to the point that the hon. Gentleman alludes to. It would profoundly not be in Northern Ireland’s best interests to head down that way, which is why I have made my points about the Executive. The best way to address his point is to have an Executive in place with a First Minister and Deputy First Minister who are able to represent Northern Ireland and argue firmly in Northern Ireland’s best interests on Brexit and many other issues.

This is an unusual Parliament, in that, because of the loss of Social Democratic and Labour party seats and the unwelcome continuing refusal of Sinn Féin Members to take their seats in this Chamber, there is no representation here of Irish nationalist opinion from the island of Ireland for the first time in many decades. Given what the Secretary of State has said in his statement about the possibility of having to introduce legislation in the near future, how will he ensure that that strain of opinion from Northern Ireland is fully taken into account in any consideration of that legislation?

I am certainly conscious, in my role as Secretary of State, of listening to voices from all parts of the community. Obviously the voices of the nationalist community are no longer represented in this House, and I will therefore continue to engage intensively with all parties in Northern Ireland. I will continue to listen and to hear the specific points that they make, and I will ensure that that is reflected in my own considerations and those of the Government more broadly as we look at the legislative programme ahead.

The Secretary of State will know my utter commitment to devolution, but at some point there has to be a realisation that the parrot could possibly be dead, that it is deceased of life, that it is no more. If that is the case with devolution, will the Secretary of State put a timeframe on the life expectancy that is ultimately left in this dead bird? Will appropriations be moved before the summer recess?

The head of the Northern Ireland civil service has indicated that we have not yet reached the point at which an appropriation Bill needs to be passed. We are still a little way away from that. None the less, urgent issues need to be addressed about the financial position in Northern Ireland, which is why I made points in my statement about the potential need for further assurance to be granted. I firmly think that there is still life there, and the engagement that we continue to see underlines that. Having locally elected politicians serving the community in Northern Ireland is profoundly what is in Northern Ireland’s best interests. I know that the hon. Gentleman strongly believes in that, and the Government will certainly not be giving up on it. We are working tirelessly to ensure that we see reconciliation and the outcome that he and I know is what Northern Ireland needs. With the efforts that continue to be made, I earnestly hope that we will see that progress and see the implementation of a power-sharing Executive in a very short time.