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Northern Ireland

Volume 628: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2017

The Secretary of State was asked—

Political Situation

Northern Ireland remains without a fully functioning, power-sharing devolved Government. Our clear and resolute focus is to re-establish devolved government at Stormont. Together with the Irish Government, we are continuing to support the parties’ efforts to find resolution and form an Executive. However, time is short and I urge the parties to continue to work to reach agreement.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, as I thank him, as I hope would all Members, for his clear determination, commitment and hard work in the cause of seeking a return to the power-sharing devolved Administration we all wish to see. With that in mind, does he share my view that it is vital that all parties in Northern Ireland continue to approach these discussions in a spirit of compromise and co-operation, with our eyes firmly fixed on the need to secure agreement?

I agree with my hon. Friend on the intent that we must have and the approach to be taken. Clearly, we will do all that we can to support the parties in the days ahead. The time for action is now. I stress that we are seeing engagement between the DUP and Sinn Féin. I have been encouraged by the nature of the intensive engagement that they have shown, but agreement has not been reached. A high number of issues remain outstanding and we must focus on finding that resolution and seeing devolved government restored.

The Prime Minister has been making phone calls, but does she have a date in her diary to make an extended visit to Northern Ireland?

The hon. Lady is right; the Prime Minister has been engaged, and she spoke to the party leaders of the DUP and Sinn Féin last night and underlined the need to be constructive in discussions and to find that resolution. She will remain closely engaged and will play whatever role is needed to support and find that positive outcome.

While it lacks its 10 political members, the Northern Ireland Policing Board remains severely constrained. Although I hope that my right hon. Friend’s efforts bear fruit, in the event that the Executive are not restored, what contingency plans does he have to enable the Policing Board to function effectively?

I welcome my hon. Friend to his place and to his position as Chair of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. I wish him and members of that Committee positive and fruitful endeavours in their work and I look forward to giving evidence to his Committee soon. He makes an important point about the important role of the Policing Board. I am not going to speculate about other options. He highlights the significance—the importance—of the issues that are at stake, and why it is so very important to see an Executive restored.

The Prime Minister has been in touch with party leaders in Northern Ireland in recent hours and she will have heard from our party leader a total commitment to restoring devolution immediately, with no red lines or preconditions, to get on with the job of dealing with health, education, jobs and investment in Northern Ireland. Can the Secretary of State indicate whether Sinn Féin continues to adhere to the view that these matters are not as important as seeking the fulfilment of partisan political demands, or whether any progress has been made on that front?

I welcome the statement that the right hon. Gentleman has made on behalf of his party, and indeed the comments that Arlene Foster has made about seeing that desire to get back into an Executive. I would also point to the comments of Michelle O’Neill, who has said that she believes that, while there are difficulties, a deal is still doable. I would certainly encourage the right hon. Gentleman and his party to engage in the way that they have, and encourage all parties to have that focus on seeing devolution restored.

I thank the Secretary of State. Certainly we will continue to engage intensively in those political talks. Northern Ireland needs a devolved Government and it needs its Executive, not least to deal, for instance, with one of the issues on the horizon—jobs in the Bombardier plant in Belfast. I thank the Secretary of State and the Government for the work that they are doing on that already, and I urge him to remain fully committed and involved with us to ensure that those jobs are safeguarded.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that there are a number of issues that would clearly benefit from having an Executive with local decision making by locally elected politicians. He highlights the issue of Bombardier. While this is a commercial matter, as he knows, the UK Government are working tirelessly to safeguard Bombardier’s operations and its highly skilled workforce in Belfast. I remain in close contact with the Business Secretary. He has had extensive engagement with Boeing, Bombardier and the Canadian and US Governments, and the right hon. Gentleman knows about the Prime Minister’s engagement, too.

Executive Accountability

2. If he will take steps to ensure that departments of the Northern Ireland Executive are accountable and accessible to the Northern Ireland electorate. (900725)

The people of Northern Ireland need a fully functioning Executive where strategic decisions can be made in the interests of the whole community. That is clearly in line with what they voted for in the Assembly election in March and that is the appropriate means to ensure local accountability and accessibility for all the people of Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. We have Departments that have been rudderless since March, which is six months ago. The accountability that comes with an elected Minister is sadly lacking. If Sinn Féin continues to hold this Government and the people of Northern Ireland to ransom, will the Secretary of State step in to ensure that proper political oversight is provided for each Department, to ensure that accountability and accessibility are back on the cards, and how does he see that taking place?

The hon. Gentleman knows that time is running short. There is the lack of a budget in Northern Ireland and that cannot continue for much longer. The more we head into October the bigger the challenges will be. He makes a point about accountability. Obviously, as the UK Government we have a primary responsibility in respect of political stability in Northern Ireland, but I note the point he makes about responses from Departments within the Northern Ireland civil service and I will certainly raise that with David Sterling.

While backing British farming both on the mainland and in Northern Ireland, may I ask my right hon. Friend, in the absence of the devolved Executive, what steps he and his Department are taking to ensure that the views of local politicians are being conveyed to Bombardier, Boeing and the Government of the United States?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our priority is to encourage Boeing to drop its case and seek a negotiated settlement. I note that the leaders of both the DUP and Sinn Féin have issued a joint letter to the vice-president underlining the particular circumstances and the real significance of this matter to Northern Ireland, and I would encourage everyone to play their part in seeking a resolution.

While the Secretary of State is trying to square that circle and get the DUP back to work in the Executive, will he acknowledge the opinion of the House of Commons Library that the Brexit Bill is a power-grab from the devolved Administrations? Will the Government he is a part of be asking the DUP Members here to vote to reduce the powers of the Assembly while it is not sitting? Do the other parties elected to Stormont agree with the power-grab?

The hon. Lady fundamentally mischaracterises what the EU (Withdrawal) Bill is about. It is about creating UK-wide frameworks to ensure that we have a smooth transition, and I would have thought that was in the best interests of all of the United Kingdom and that everybody should get behind it.

Cross-border Security

The UK Government have regular discussions with the Irish Government on a range of issues, including cross-border security. We work closely together to tackle security challenges and keep people on both sides of the border safe.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we leave the European Union, close co-operation with the Government of Ireland on security will be extremely important? Can she assure the House that that will be a top priority in the coming negotiations?

Yes—in short, I certainly can. Co-operation with the Irish authorities is already strong. We wish to see that continue. If I may, I will take this opportunity to commend the security services and police on both sides of the border for all that they do to keep individuals safe.

The Minister will be aware of the security assessment that the New IRA represents a very real and present threat to security. What discussions have the Government had with their Irish counterparts about that organisation?

Obviously, it is not possible to comment on specific assessments and security matters at this moment, but as I said in my previous response, co-operation is very strong across all security matters. We wish to see it continue that way in order to keep people on both sides of the border safe not only from the scourge of terrorism, but from cross-border crime where that is relevant, too.

I am grateful to the Minister for her response and I am sure she will join my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) and me in welcoming Adrian O’Neill, Ireland’s newly appointed ambassador, to London. Will she also speak to Dublin about how it, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday agreement, can assist in moving the peace process forward? I very much welcome the spirit of her words.

There has been close co-operation with the Irish Government every step of the way in seeking to re-establish the devolved Government, which is a common and shared priority. As the hon. Gentleman has said, that spirit is shared not only by Members on both sides of the House, but by the Governments. I am clear, however, that the UK Government have the specific responsibility of delivering public services and good governance in Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. We act consistently in accordance with our obligations under the Belfast agreement and we are not looking for any principle that might be inconsistent with that agreement.

Common Travel Area

4. What discussions he has had with the Taoiseach on maintaining the common travel area after the UK leaves the EU. (900727)

The Government’s position on Northern Ireland and Ireland affirmed our commitment to maintaining the common travel area. That is supported by the EU, as confirmed in its recent paper on Ireland. I have regular discussions with the Irish Government and know that they, too, are supportive of maintaining the common travel area.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge the warning from Mary McAleese—the former President of Ireland, who was born in Belfast—that maintaining the common travel area in the long term would be impossible, because it is impossible to distinguish between a UK and Irish or any other citizen who holds a CTA entitlement? Does he acknowledge her view that that would inevitably mean border checks and passport control?

I point the hon. Gentleman to the paper that the EU itself issued, which said:

“The continued operation of the Common Travel Area is fundamental to facilitating the interaction of people in Ireland and the United Kingdom…Continuation of the Common Travel Area arrangements, in conformity with European Union law, should be recognised.”

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to do so.

Given that neither Ireland nor the UK is a member of the Schengen agreement, and given that security information is already shared whenever members of the public cross the Irish sea, does that not provide a framework for co-operation between north and south?

My hon. Friend highlights the strong co-operation between the Irish and UK Governments in respect of the common travel area. We want that to continue in the future. It has served us well over many decades, which is why our paper highlights its importance. Indeed, I think that the EU itself recognises that too.

The Government have produced a thoughtful, imaginative and innovative position paper on the issues of movement of people and goods across the border on the event of exit. Is the Secretary of State therefore disappointed that Dublin Ministers have taken up Sinn Féin calls for a border along the Irish sea, for special status for Northern Ireland and for staying in the customs union, instead of engaging positively with the Government on the proposals?

The Irish Government recognise the particular challenges. We encourage all those involved to engage positively and proactively with the position paper we published to encourage further discussion. It has workable proposals and we need to get down to having a detailed discussion on them.

In his discussions with the Taoiseach, has the Secretary of State reflected on the fact that the common travel area is based on neither country being in Schengen, and that the real threat to Ireland and the UK would come from a part of mainland UK joining Schengen, for which the Scottish National party keeps arguing?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about Schengen. Our common framework on the common travel area has operated since the 1920s, and the UK, the Irish Government and the EU recognise its significance. We are determined to find a positive way through, and that can be achieved.

Northern Ireland Powerhouse

5. Whether the Government have plans to establish a Northern Ireland powerhouse; and if he will make a statement. (900728)

This Government fully support business groups and civic leaders collaborating across boundaries to grow local economies. We are committed to doing our part to build prosperity right across the United Kingdom. For example, in Northern Ireland our UK industrial strategy will support business growth, employment and innovation, and boost levels of trade and investment.

The north-east has been part of the northern powerhouse brand for some years now without succeeding in obtaining any significant investment. The Democratic Unionist Party on the other hand seems to have managed the opposite trick of receiving £1 billion of investment without any scrutiny, oversight or branding —or at least not one that it would be orderly of me to cite. Does the Minister agree with me that it is far better to have the money without the branding than the branding without the money?

I would hope that those on both sides of the House would agree that in every part of the United Kingdom we need to see jobs growth, the growth of key industries and people living a secure and prosperous life. I am pleased to note that this morning it was announced that the Northern Ireland unemployment rate for the May to July quarter of this year has decreased again. I hope that the hon. Lady would welcome that kind of growth. I also hope that she would turn her attention to what she could do to support the economy in her own constituency. [Interruption.]

Order. There are plenty of private conversations taking place in the Chamber, but I am very keen to hear the thoughts of Mr David Simpson.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am sure the Minister agrees with me that when Northern Ireland achieves the status of 12.5% corporation tax, along and combined with our industrial strategy, our skills base and productivity, we would be ripe for a powerhouse initiative.

There are two things to say. First, we would like to see additional economic co-operation within Northern Ireland—namely, the possibility of there being city deals. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman’s comments about corporation tax clearly remind us that we need to work towards the restoration of an Executive who can take such decisions for the good of the people of Northern Ireland.

Governance and Political Stability

6. What steps he is taking to ensure good governance and political stability in Northern Ireland. (900729)

I have pressed the parties on the urgent need to resolve the current impasse in the interests of the entire community and I believe a deal remains possible. Locally accountable government is essential for the delivery of public services, good governance and political stability in Northern Ireland.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and his patience and perseverance in restoring the Executive. How concerned is he about the lack of accountability to locally elected politicians of civil servants who are delivering public services in Northern Ireland?

I am concerned, because it is not right that we do not have locally elected politicians making decisions and, yes, making sure that civil servants who act to deliver those services are held accountable. That is why we need to see the restoration of the Executive at the earliest possible opportunity, serving all communities, and delivering those public services that people need.

Given that we have not had a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly for nine months, why on earth do the 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly continue to receive their full salaries and their full staffing allowance? It is an absolute scandal that that continues to be the case.

I certainly hear that message loud and clear. There is no direct way in which I can intervene; there is no legislation that would authorise me to do so. As I said in a speech in Cambridge on Friday, if we were to be in the situation where the UK Government have to make direct directions, that is certainly an issue that I would have to consider.

Having heard the hon. Gentleman regularly expostulating from his seat, it would be good to hear him on his feet. Mr Martin Docherty-Hughes.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. If the Secretary of State is so perturbed by a perceived lack of good governance in the province of Northern Ireland, perhaps he would like to tell his Back Benchers why he and his Government technically gave £1 billion to an unaccountable executive, led by the DUP.

We have recognised the case for the needs of Northern Ireland, where there has been under-investment in infrastructure and mental health issues. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman does not acknowledge and recognise that. We firmly do, and act in the interests of all parts of the United Kingdom.

Brexit Discussions

7. What recent discussions he has had with political parties in Northern Ireland on the UK leaving the EU. (900730)

UK Government Ministers have held a number of meetings with Northern Ireland’s political parties about EU exit. However, our priority remains restoring the Northern Ireland Executive, which will enable direct ministerial engagement on matters relating to the UK’s departure from the EU.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but people still need food and drink. Six million cases of Baileys and other cream liqueurs are made in Ireland every year. In Northern Ireland, production crosses the border several times, as is the case for most products. What is he doing to ensure frictionless borders for our farmers and for food production, and ensure that Baileys and Guinness get here?

I note my hon. Friend’s focus on drinks and her preferred tipple. The agri-foods sector is a key component of the Northern Irish and, indeed, Irish economy. That is why we highlighted it in our position paper on standards with regard to the need for a frictionless border. We have set out those proposals, and we want that engagement with the EU.

The Brexit Secretary borrowed a phrase from the Northern Ireland peace process to describe his approach to Brexit negotiations. He called it generously constructive ambiguity, but on the issue of the Northern Irish border we do not need ambiguity. We need certainty, so will the Secretary of State provide some today. Essentially, he has three options: a hard border in Ireland; a hard border in the Irish sea; or maintaining the UK and Ireland in a customs union through political agreement. Which one does he support?

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to read our position paper, which sets out the proposals. We do not want a border emerging across the Irish sea. We do not want a hard border, which is why we have set out proposals on the movement of people and goods and, yes, proposals in relation to customs arrangements.

It is precisely because I have read the Government’s paper that I ask for clarity. It has to be made plain exactly what the Government are proposing. The Secretary of State knows that a hard border, either in Northern Ireland or in the Irish sea, would be completely damaging to the Good Friday agreement and the economy of Ireland. The only answer is to maintain a customs union, and I urge him to advocate that today.

We have been clear about the maintenance of the common travel area, and we have set out two alternatives for the operation of customs arrangements. On the question of clarity, I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to ask for clarity from the Leader of the Opposition, who has been anything but clear about whether his party supports membership of the single market or not. I encourage him to work on his own side to deliver that clarity.

Security Situation

The threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism continues to be severe in Northern Ireland, meaning that an attack is highly likely. Our response to terrorism and paramilitary activity is co-ordinated, effective and fully resourced. This Government remain fully committed to keeping people safe and secure and ensuring that terrorism never succeeds.

As part of the security review, will the Minister look at the case of Dennis Hutchings and other veterans, who have been hounded and charged in respect of alleged shootings nearly 50 years ago? There is no new evidence, so surely the time has come to restore humanity and natural justice, and bring in some form of time limitation.

The Government will always give their fullest possible backing to those brave men and women who have done, and continue to do, an outstanding job serving the community. As part of our work to implement the Stormont House agreement, the legacy institutions will be under a duty to behave in a manner that is balanced, proportionate and fair. We also have the aim of taking cases in chronological order. [Interruption.]

I understand the sense of anticipation, but I remind the House that we are discussing the security situation in Northern Ireland. Out of respect for the people of Northern Ireland it would be good if there were some attention to the questions and answers.

Will my hon. Friend join me in sending a message of support and thanks to the brave men and women of the Police Service of Northern Ireland who keep us safe in the light of the severe terrorist threat at present?

Yes, I certainly do. I send the Government’s thanks and support to every member of the security services and the police force who keeps people safe in Northern Ireland and here.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on efforts made through the “Fresh Start” programme to tackle the scourge of paramilitaries, who continue to exert control through fear and criminal behaviour?

This Government have committed £25 million of funding to support the Northern Ireland Executive’s tackling paramilitarism programme. However, I return to the point that this reminds us why we need an Executive back up and running to keep people safe, on this most acute of issues.

The Minister must be absolutely appalled by the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the response by the Government to Libyan Semtex being used to murder people in Northern Ireland and here in GB. Will she commit to meet my colleagues and me to discuss this report and get a fresh start on dealing with this crucial issue?

More broadly, this is a matter being taken forward by the Foreign Office, but I would be happy to meet, or indeed to arrange a meeting, with members of the Government to discuss the issues in more detail.

Can the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking to try to reassure communities that it is safe for them to come forward and work with the police? Surely working with communities is one of the best ways to improve the security situation in the whole of Northern Ireland.

Yes, is the principal answer. It is crucial that people have the confidence to come forward to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to ensure a safe and prosperous future for all parts of the community.