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Northern Ireland Assembly Election

Volume 656: debated on Thursday 21 March 2019

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement regarding the extension of her power under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 not to hold an Assembly election.

I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on my progress towards restoring the Northern Ireland Executive and the other institutions established under the Belfast agreement.

In recent weeks, I have met the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government on a number of occasions. In those discussions, all five main parties reaffirmed their commitment to restoring a power-sharing Executive and the other political institutions set out in the Belfast agreement.

Although we have not yet been able to start a formal talks process, I believe that the five main parties and the Irish Government would be in favour of taking forward a short, focused set of roundtable talks to restore devolution at the earliest opportunity. Any such talks process will involve the UK Government, the five main parties and the Irish Government taking place in full accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach.

As you know, Mr Speaker, the period for Executive formation was extended by the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, which lasts until 26 March this year. I am incredibly reluctant to extend that period. The people of Northern Ireland deserve strong political leadership from a locally elected, accountable devolved Government and I am absolutely focused on achieving that outcome. But as we stand here today, there are only three options before the legislation expires next week. The first is an Assembly election, which is a costly exercise that would be highly unlikely to change the political dynamics. The second is an alternative approach to decision making in Northern Ireland, such as direct rule, which I do not believe is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland—certainly they tell me that it is not what they want.

The third option is to extend the Act. This gives the political parties more space to come back together in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. It also provides the Northern Ireland civil service with the certainty and clarity that they need to continue to deliver public services in the absence of Ministers.

I have today laid before Parliament a statutory instrument to extend the period for the Act from 26 March 2019 to 25 August 2019. This means that from 26 August this year I will fall under the duty to propose a date for an Assembly election. Both Houses will have the opportunity to debate the instrument in the usual way, and the instrument cannot remain in force unless actively approved by both Houses.

I thank the Secretary of State for her initial response, but I remind the House that it is now well over two years since the Stormont Assembly last sat. In previous periods, we have sometimes had direct rule, but we have most certainly had Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers actively engaged in bringing the parties together.

Before the passing of the Act last October, the law required that the Secretary of State call an election. There were cynics who said that the reason for the legislation was that the Secretary of State wanted to avoid judicial review and being dragged through the courts to explain why she had failed to call the election. Operating on the bipartisan principle from which all Governments have benefited in the 20-plus years since the Good Friday agreement, we reluctantly accepted last October the need for the legislation. We did that, however, only after consultation and after the Secretary of State had let us know her plans. During the passage of the Act, she promised that she and the Prime Minister would spare no effort to bring the five parties together and get the Stormont Assembly back in operation. In October, it seemed incredible that it would not happen before this March, but five months on I discover through social media—it is unacceptable that consultation takes place through social media—that she plans to extend the period of the legislation.

I am bound to put this first question to the Secretary of State: has she given up on bringing the parties together? Nobody in Northern Ireland—none of the political parties—says to me they believe she has been sincere or energetic in her determination to get the parties together and the Stormont Assembly back up and running. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) said in The House magazine that

“her basic policy approach has been flawed in the sense that she has decided that Northern Ireland could just stand still, leave it to the civil servants. For that, that’s a glaring failure on her part.”

Many people agree with that assessment.

Does the Secretary of State now accept that nothing will happen until after August and that we will drift along once again? If not, and given that she has so little credibility among the political parties, how does she now plan to drive the talks process forward in a meaningful and consistent way, and in a way we have not seen before? What will her best endeavours be, according to the needs of the Good Friday agreement, to move the situation on and bring the five parties together, and how does she intend to involve the authority of the Prime Minister in a way that previous Northern Ireland Secretaries have done with previous Prime Ministers?

I do not like ever to personalise politics, but I have to say to the Secretary of State that she has seen a massive haemorrhaging of trust in her role in recent weeks and months, because of inadvertent remarks she has uttered and her lack of energy in bringing the five parties together. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has to be a figure of both trust and authority. If she is not part of the solution, she becomes part of the problem, so my last question is this: does she honestly believe that she can regain the confidence of the five parties and the people of Northern Ireland and drive Northern Ireland forward?

I have to say I am very disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s tone—he is someone I respect and have enormous time for.

I was incredibly disappointed when I saw that my conversations with political parties yesterday had been put out in press releases and ended up on social media. That was not the intention. I made this decision having consulted all five main parties—I spoke to them all yesterday, either face to face or over the telephone—and I also spoke to the Irish Government, and when I had consulted all those parties and said that I was minded to extend the legislation, but only if there was any prospect or possibility of the parties coming together, and they confirmed to me that that was the case, I contacted the hon. Gentleman. I, too, am disappointed that information was on social media before I had had the chance to contact him, but I assure him that I contacted him at the very earliest opportunity after I had made my decision based on my conversations with the parties.

I do meet the parties regularly, I do speak to them and I do hear from them. I brought the parties together in five-party talks to see whether we could find a way to get a process in place. Parties tell me that they want to do that, so I intend to spend the next few weeks working with them on actions that can be taken so that, when we are able to start a formal talks process, we are able to do so in a way that gives us the best chance of success.

The hon. Gentleman is right that two years is too long for the people of Northern Ireland to be without Ministers. I know that the parties want to find a way to go back into Stormont, and I want to do everything in my power to ensure that that happens. That is why, extremely reluctantly, I have laid the instrument today—an instrument that he will have 90 minutes to debate on the Floor of the House, and can vote against if he disagrees with it.

The hon. Gentleman says that he wants to see devolution restored in Northern Ireland, yet he consistently undermines that position by demanding that decisions are taken in Westminster—the very opposite of devolution. He also says that he wants to see Northern Ireland protected in Brexit, but he consistently votes against the only position that protects the Belfast agreement—the deal that is supported by his sister party in Northern Ireland, which would ensure that Northern Ireland does not move into chaos and would not wreck the prospects of any devolution in Northern Ireland. If he wants to start taking actions that match his words, he should do the right thing for Northern Ireland and vote for the deal next week.

I fully understand the need to table the written ministerial statement, but it states quite clearly that the proposed talks should be “short” and “focused”, and I assume that that is more than rhetorical. However, my experience of talks in Northern Ireland is that they are neither short nor particularly focused. Will the Secretary of State explain a little bit more about her thinking on the matter, as what she has written seems to suggest that there is a specific bone of contention within the current impasse in Northern Ireland that can be resolved through the short and focused talks that she envisages?

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, whom I also notified of the decision yesterday. The reason for the comment about short and focused talks is that I genuinely believe that there is a will to re-establish devolved government. A number of issues need to be resolved, but we will ensure that work is done before the talks start. Let me be clear that I do not want to mislead people in Northern Ireland to think that a talks process will have success if I do not believe that it will. I will therefore only call that talks process if I believe that there will be success, but I believe that the issues can be dealt with through a short, focused process, and that is what I intend to bring forward.

I will call the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) now, but I am sensitive to the needs of all those who have flights to catch; I will bear that very closely in mind.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement this morning. Talks collapsed more than 12 months ago, and Scottish National party Members want to see their immediate re-establishment. The Secretary of State has told the Chamber many times that restoring devolution is her No. 1 priority, and I am sure the House will hold her to that. Will she therefore give the House a date on which the new, inclusive talks will begin, and tell us why she has presided over such an unacceptable delay? Can she also give us a commitment that the talks will be fully inclusive, including all the communities and parties involved; and what role does she see for the Irish Government in the process? Has she given some thought to appointing an independent mediator to assist in making the process fairer and faster?

Finally, does the Secretary of State accept that the wider instability caused by her Government through the Brexit process is the general reason that it is so difficult to restore this approach in Northern Ireland? Once we get through this madcap Brexit process, are we going to see faster progress in returning devolved democracy to Northern Ireland, instead of dictatorship from this place?

There is definitely not dictatorship from this House towards Northern Ireland. I am completely committed to devolution and all the institutions established under the Belfast agreement, and that is what we want to see restored as soon as possible. I would expect the talks to be five-party talks, because the best thing for Northern Ireland is for the five main parties to be involved in the talks and then to be able to form an Executive. In terms of a date, as soon as there is more information I will of course return to this House to update it, as I always do.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a very strong role for the Irish Government. It is quite clear that the two Governments have been involved in all talks processes that have been successful, and we would of course ensure that they were involved. On an independent mediator, I rule nothing out. I am looking at a number of options as to how we might restart the talks in such a way as to have the best success.

The hon. Gentleman talked about Brexit being a distraction. I think that perhaps the bigger distraction in Northern Ireland at the moment is the local elections, for which we will be going into purdah next week.

I think the whole House will want to see a return to devolved government in Northern Ireland, and we wish the Secretary of State well in these discussions. What would the consequences have been had she not taken the difficult but required decision to lay this statutory instrument to enable her to continue the powers that she has?

The reason for the legislation in the first place was that we need to ensure that there is some political cover for civil servants taking decisions. We want to make sure that public services continue to run and that civil servants can take decisions. They cannot change the law and they cannot take major policy decisions, but it is very important that they are able to take decisions on infrastructure, funding for schools and hospitals and so on. The alternative to extending the legislation is, as I set out earlier, one of two things: either a fundamental change in the way that decision making takes place in Northern Ireland—a step that I do not believe is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland—or the requirement to call an election, which is a very costly exercise that I do not think would see any fundamental change to the political dynamic there.

I thank the Secretary of State for the consultations that she has had with us on this matter. Of course, this is the right thing to do in the circumstances. Regrettable though it is, it is the only possible course at the present time. However, could I suggest that she does something a bit more radical to take the initiative a bit more? What about calling the Assembly together? What about putting it up to the parties as to who is prepared to go into government now and who wants to sit outside? My understanding is that four of the five parties in Northern Ireland would go into government tomorrow, so why not put it up to people? Instead of all the talk about wanting devolution, let us see who will actually vote for it. Please do that.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I am aware that he probably has an aeroplane to catch, so I will not detain him any longer than need be. I am looking at what we can do over the next few weeks to get the parties together to start the dialogue and to make sure that when a talks process does start, it has the best possible chance of succeeding.

I understand the reasons for this decision, but we are in a continued appalling situation where decisions are either not being made or being made by senior civil servants without any democratic accountability. What can the Secretary of State do to encourage the head of the civil service to put in place guidance on the transparency of those decisions and of decisions that are delayed or not being made, and on ensuring some consistency in who they meet and how they meet stakeholders and members of the public with concerns?

As the hon. Lady knows—she pushed very hard for this—there is transparency on decisions through reports laid in this place on decisions that have been taken. However, I will look at the points she has made and see whether such further work can be done.

I thank the Secretary of State for what she has said so far. Her decision not to hold the Northern Ireland Assembly elections is understandable, but it leaves Northern Ireland in uncertainty. School budgets are in crisis and waiting lists for operations grow. There is a need to target specific moneys across all Departments in Northern Ireland, but particularly towards Health and Education, as she said. What steps will she be taking to enable financial restrictions to be eased, including on the confidence and supply moneys that my party secured from her party to enable better government and better possibilities and strategies for Northern Ireland?

With specific reference to the moneys secured under the confidence and supply arrangement, those moneys are being released as appropriate by the Treasury, and they are included within the Northern Ireland budget. We legislated two weeks ago to put the 2018-19 budget on a statutory footing, and we will of course do so for the 2019-20 budget later on. Clearly this is not a good situation, and none of us wants to be in this situation, but it is the least worst of the options that are available to us.

The Secretary of State has a difficult job, and I know that the Prime Minister is very busy with other matters, but the reason I was the last direct rule Minister for Northern Ireland is that the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Taoiseach put the parties in St Andrews hotel in Scotland for an intensive period to come to a conclusion and to do what the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) said—to ask “Are you in Government, or are you not?” The answer out of St Andrews came, “Yes, we are.” The challenge is for the Secretary of State to bring the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and the parties to the table and to put that deadline to them.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; I want him to continue to be the very last direct rule Minister for Northern Ireland, and I am determined that we achieve that. But he will know, from his great experience, that St Andrews was the culmination of work that had happened with the parties to bring them together. A lot of work happened before that short, intensive period of talks. I am looking at what work we can do before we bring together the parties in that short, focused talks period.

With the extension that has been announced, the breach of women’s human rights in Northern Ireland will carry on and not be addressed. How long do women in Northern Ireland have to wait for the Secretary of State to do the right thing by them?

The hon. Lady has campaigned on that matter for many years. She has introduced a private Members’ Bill, ten-minute rule Bills and so on, and I know she feels very strongly about it. An amendment was made to the legislation on guidance. It is clear that the civil service in Northern Ireland has a duty to monitor the situation with regard to changes in human rights laws and international law, but I continue to monitor it myself.

Further to what has been said about the importance of talks to get the Assembly up and running again, and the point made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), does the Secretary of State feel that it will be vital to have an independent facilitator to chair the process, because the UK Government—rightly or wrongly—may appear to be compromised by their current arrangements in this place with the DUP?

As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I am independent of what happens with regard to relationships on voting—those are a matter for Whips—but I am looking at all the options for how we can have success. When I have seen a willingness and a desire to restore devolution, I do not want to bring the parties together and fail to do so. We need to ensure that we have the best chance of doing it, and I will look at all options to ensure that that happens.