With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the talks, so I ask for your forbearance while I give an answer that is slightly longer than usual. Over the past weeks, the political parties—particularly the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin—have engaged in discussions on the key issues that remain to be resolved. They have done so with the continuous support of the UK Government and, in accordance with the three-strand approach, the Irish Government. Those discussions have built on the progress that was made in previous talks to reduce further the gaps between them. An accommodation between the parties has not yet been reached, but there is no doubt as to their collective commitment towards the restoration of devolution. I firmly believe that an agreement in the coming days, while not certain, is achievable. That remains my focus.
In welcoming the Secretary of State to her new post, may I gently say to her that she should have been making a statement on this today? Every party in Northern Ireland says that it wants a deal, but significant gaps remain. Can she outline what those gaps actually are, and what she is doing to try to resolve them and bring people together?
I gently say to the hon. Gentleman, who is greatly distinguished in this area and knows Northern Ireland politics well, that we are at a very sensitive stage in discussions. I have been committed to making no running commentary on the talks while they are ongoing. There have been very intense and detailed discussions. I believe that we can reach an outcome, but I will do nothing that might jeopardise that.
Will the Secretary of State set a deadline for the talks so that the people of Northern Ireland know when they will have some government back, either in Northern Ireland or via direct rule from here?
I was clear at the outset that the talks would take weeks, not months. We have been in intensive discussions for two weeks now, and I hope to see the matter resolved as soon as possible.
Does the Secretary of State agree that in normal civil society a party that wins an election comes together and forms a Government, and parties that do not win an election and do not want to be in government go into opposition and hold that Government to account. Have we not now reached the stage in Northern Ireland where normal civil society ought to be operating?
I firmly agree that, after almost 12 months without devolved government, we absolutely need to have the Stormont institutions back up and running. The people of Northern Ireland voted for their politicians, and it is incumbent on those politicians to deliver. However, we respect the fact that this is a cross-party and cross-community resolution, as set out in the Belfast agreement. As I have said, I am determined to do everything possible to give this the best chance to succeed and to get devolved government back up and running, and I will do nothing to jeopardise that.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to ensuring that devolved government is restored as soon as possible. Does she agree that one of the stumbling blocks is that certain parties—namely, Sinn Féin—keep coming forward with new demands that were not part of the original aim of forming the Executive?
I apologise; I would very much like to give Members much more explicit and detailed answers, but that would simply not be appropriate at this stage. However, as before, I commit to returning to the House as and when I have something concrete to say on the matter.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State to her new post—and the Under-Secretary of State—and wish her well in her continued efforts to facilitate talks in Northern Ireland. She knows that we are not the stumbling block to the restoration of the Executive. In the meantime, will she give a clear commitment to the people of Northern Ireland, and to this House, that the budget for Northern Ireland will be set as soon as possible, given that the head of the civil service has said
“we cannot go much beyond the beginning of February without clarity about how much departments and various public bodies are going to have to spend next year”
because the lack of a budget is affecting services, including health and social care? The current position is intolerable. We need a budget and we need it now.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments—he and I have discussed this issue. He will know that my predecessor took action on the matter, and obviously I have had discussions with the civil service in Northern Ireland. I have met some very dedicated public servants who are doing their best to deliver, but in the absence of devolved government that is becoming increasingly difficult. That is why we need devolved government, and we need it quickly. I understand the point he makes. My predecessor took action on the matter and I am sure that he will be assured by that.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State, in so far as that goes, and I look forward to her bringing forward proposals, without prejudice to the ongoing negotiations, so that we do not have a situation in which Departments, people and services are suffering. Does she agree that the recent statement by Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin about Northern Ireland being a “putrid little statelet”, justifying IRA murder in order to bring about rights, shows the sheer disgrace, irony and hypocrisy of Sinn Féin preaching rights and equality by justifying murder and disrespecting the state of Northern Ireland? Does she agree that that sort of attitude must stop? If respect is to mean anything, it has to mean Sinn Féin showing respect towards Unionists and those who believe in the Union.
I think this shows that it is incumbent on everyone in public life to think very carefully about the words they use in public and the way they may be interpreted.
I too welcome the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary. I look forward to working with them and of course wish the Secretary of State’s predecessor a speedy recovery.
We understand that the Secretary of State will not want to give a running commentary on the talks, but there is enormous frustration in Northern Ireland after a year in limbo, with successive Secretaries of State telling us exactly the same thing. Can she at least confirm that one of the big sticking points in the talks is rights—not just language rights, but marriage equality rights? Can she tell us whether she will consider taking that issue off the table by legislating for equal marriage rights in Northern Ireland, which are enjoyed in Staffordshire?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As I said, I do not wish to say anything at this stage—I know it is frustrating for all that I cannot say more, and I am frustrated too—but I will come to this House and make a full statement as and when I am able to. Equal marriage is clearly a devolved issue and quite rightly should be legislated for in Stormont. That is the right place for this legislation to be enacted, and I look forward to a devolved Government being in place that can do that. He will recall that when the matter was debated in this Chamber for our constituents in England and Wales, these Benches were entitled to a free vote and Members of Parliament voted in line with their conscience.
And the right hon. Lady will know that Northern Ireland did have a vote in the Assembly on this issue in November last year. It voted in favour of taking forward marriage equality for Northern Ireland, so she could show leadership on this issue and respect devolution, and potentially bring forward the prospect of devolution being resolved. Will she answer a very simple question that I think many people in Northern Ireland will want me to ask: what is she going to do differently in the weeks and months ahead to show leadership and break the deadlock?
The talks have resumed. They are detailed and intense. The parties are engaged and are working late into the night most nights to reach a resolution. I think that the politicians in Northern Ireland understand the frustration of the people of Northern Ireland and want to deliver for them, but there are differences that need to be overcome. I am doing everything I can to try to get a resolution so that accommodation can be found and devolved government can be restored.
I would like the Secretary of State just to take a few moments to explain to the House and the people in Northern Ireland the level of engagement with the smaller parties in Northern Ireland—the Alliance party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, and the Ulster Unionist party—in the recently resumed talks. I have had it reported to me that they had a cup of tea and a bit of a chat, and said, “Thank you and goodbye, see you on Thursday.” I cannot believe that that was the level of engagement, so would the Secretary of State give some reassurance about the level of engagement with smaller parties, please?
All parties have been included within the talks process since 24 January. I have met all the main party leaders on a number of occasions, including at the roundtable on Monday, and we are due to hold another one later this week. The hon. Lady will understand that unless the two big parties—the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin—can reach an agreement, we are not able to achieve devolved government, so it is right that there is detailed, bilateral discussion between those two parties. Yesterday, for instance, I spoke to or met all the party leaders.