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Devolved Government

Volume 655: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2019

On the first day of Lent, we continue our feast of Northern Ireland business.

I am working closely with the main Northern Ireland parties to restore devolved government.  I met the five main political parties on 15 February, and again—with the exception of one party—on 1 March. Northern Ireland needs a functioning Executive and Assembly, and that is what the Government are determined to achieve.

I commend my right hon. Friend’s efforts. What steps is she taking to ensure that Northern Ireland has good governance and political stability in the absence of devolved government?

My hon. Friend has made the important point that in the absence of Ministers at Stormont, it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that, when necessary, steps are taken to ensure that there is good governance. Yesterday we legislated to put the 2018-19 budget on a statutory footing, and today we will legislate to set the regional rates and cost-cap the renewable heat incentive scheme.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as in Scotland, it is vital for us to respect the need for devolution in Northern Ireland? Does she share my concern about the fact that four of the five parties in Northern Ireland want devolution to work, and only one party is holding up the process?

I think that all parties and all politicians in Northern Ireland want devolution to work. We want to find a way through this. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is no alternative to power-sharing devolution that is good and sustainable in the long term for the people of Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State knows, and the whole House knows, that there was violence on the part of dissident republicans even when we had devolution. However, given yesterday’s improvised explosive devices and the link to dissident republicans, can she tell the House whether there is any prospect of the security threat level being raised, and does she have any more information about the origins of those devices?

The threat level in Northern Ireland—the level of threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism—is “severe”, and there is currently no suggestion that it will change. I had a conversation with the Chief Constable this morning. In respect of the specific incident to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, these are the early days of an ongoing investigation, and it would not be appropriate for me to say anything further at this stage.

I thank the Secretary of State for that information, but she will understand the concern that is out there about those devices being sent through the post. May I urge her to ensure that the lack of devolution does not hamper the introduction of any powers or resources that the Chief Constable may need in Northern Ireland—or, indeed, here on the mainland—for the purpose of combating such a terrorist threat?

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman of that. Despite the lack of a devolved Executive, we now have a fully constituted Policing Board to ensure that we have proper governance arrangements in Northern Ireland. That step was taken after the House passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right: we need to ensure that the police have the powers that they need, throughout the United Kingdom, in order to challenge and deal with the threat of terrorism.

Given that the majority of the parties in Northern Ireland want the Assembly to be restored, would the Secretary of State consider restoring an Assembly of the willing?

My hon. Friend has made a good suggestion, which has also been made by a number of parties. However, the Government are steadfast in their commitment to the institutions established under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and its successors. I want those institutions to be fully restored, and that is what I am working to achieve.

One way in which the Secretary of State might rebuild some of the trust between the political parties that is necessary for the restoring of devolution would be to make political funding in Northern Ireland more transparent. Will she tell the House whether, and when, she will agree with the Electoral Commission, and backdate the funding legislation to 2014?

The measures that were taken in the House in respect of transparency of donations were taken with the support of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland, and with broad support across those parties. I will look carefully at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, but we must be clear about the need to ensure that such measures are supported in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State set herself a deadline of 26 March in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act. Has she asked her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to clear her diary so that she will be available to support that final push to restore devolution, as the Prime Minister was available in February 2018?

The Prime Minister takes a very keen interest in all matters in Northern Ireland; she has visited Northern Ireland on a number of occasions and regularly meets the main parties from Northern Ireland, both here in Westminster and in Northern Ireland. However, the hon. Lady is right to point out that the Act expires on 26 March and I am looking carefully at what we can do to ensure there is decision making after that date.