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Northern Ireland

Volume 660: debated on Wednesday 22 May 2019

The Secretary of State was asked—

Security Situation

The threat from dissident republican terrorism continues to be severe in Northern Ireland after the appalling killing of Lyra McKee. This Government’s first priority is to keep people safe and secure. Vigilance against this continuing threat is essential, and we remain determined to ensure that terrorism never succeeds.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the £105 million of UK Government funding for the new Derry/Londonderry city deal and the inclusive future fund. Does she agree that it is vital that we provide young people with the jobs and skills they need to move on in the future in a world that is rejecting violence and that all these things will help?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am sure that she will have heard the words of Father Martin Magill at the funeral of Lyra McKee; he said that young people need jobs, not guns. It is exactly right that we should focus our efforts on providing jobs as well as tackling terrorism, so that we can give those young people the alternative to violence so that they can have a future that is fit for them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is doing an outstanding job and showing tremendous courage and professionalism in dealing with violence and dissident activity? What can the Government do to support the PSNI to ensure that it faces down the dissidents and people who are spreading hatred and violence?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government’s first priority is to keep people safe and secure across the whole United Kingdom. We saw incredible bravery from the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the night of Lyra McKee’s killing. Although the police faced an onslaught of petrol bombs and shooting towards them, they got out of their vehicles to try to save Lyra, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude. We need to see people across Northern Ireland working with the PSNI to stamp out terrorism, and the Government stand steadfast in our commitment to assisting that work.

It is vital that we give the right message to young people. However, we have recently seen, yet again, shots being fired over coffins at funerals and before funerals by IRA and INLA terrorists, using weapons that were supposed to have been decommissioned. Is it not incumbent on all political parties in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin, to make it clear that such paramilitary displays with weapons are harmful to our society, send out the wrong message to young people and should stop immediately?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that these sorts of outward displays of violence are not acceptable. What I saw after Lyra’s killing was the community coming together and rejecting those outward displays, leading to the cancellation of the proposed march through Londonderry on Easter Monday.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will have had a briefing earlier today—or, indeed, perhaps yesterday—from the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland about the security situation in Northern Ireland. In that context, would the Secretary of State update the people of Northern Ireland about the success of the PSNI in stopping the spate of ATM thefts and apprehending those responsible? Such an update would be very welcome.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that I saw the Chief Constable yesterday, and I share her concern about the issue. This is an ongoing operational matter, but the actions of the PSNI are to be applauded.

The whole House will share the Secretary of State’s admiration for all the officers of the PSNI—and of the Garda Siochana—who have stopped numerous hideous incidents over recent months and years. What assessment has she made of the PSNI’s morale and of the situation for recruitment to the PSNI and other security forces, should there be a different regime for the veterans of Operation Banner compared with other military operations in other theatres?

I have seen that the PSNI conducts a very difficult job. I am always pleased to have the chance to meet police officers—particularly at Strand Road in Londonderry, where I have made a number of visits following dreadful incidents that we have seen in that city—and to hear the camaraderie and commitment shown by those individuals. I am determined that we will deal with the matters regarding the legacy of Operation Banner appropriately, lawfully and in a way that reflects exactly the commitment that we see today from the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Is not one of the challenges for dealing with the security situation in Northern Ireland to build the confidence of communities right across Northern Ireland, working with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and others? In the face of recent terrible events, we have seen the community doing that, but what more can the Secretary of State do to encourage communities to work with the security forces?

The hon. Gentleman, I know, has great experience in this area and he is right that we do need to see co-operation between communities and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We did see a real step change following that appalling killing where people were welcoming the PSNI into their homes, but it is an incredibly difficult job. We need to make sure that the inclusive future fund—the £55 million that the Government have committed to Derry/Londonderry—is used in part to support those activities.

The Secretary of State will know that the security situation depends on, among other things, the perception that the police and the judicial process are independent. Families of victims of the troubles of the past are, in many cases, still waiting for answers. Does she agree that those families, and those young people who can be pulled into terrorist acts, would be influenced dramatically if they believed that there was a rule saying that there would be a statute of limitations for state actors when, quite rightly, we seek to prosecute those who perpetrated either murder or manslaughter from whatever background?

The hon. Gentleman will know that this Government are committed to implementing the institutions that were agreed at Stormont House. We have had a consultation on that matter and received more than 17,000 responses—individual personal responses. We will publish the summary of those consultation responses in due course.

Employment Trends

I am happy to confirm that the latest labour market statistics for Northern Ireland show employment at a record high and unemployment at a record low. This is a long-term and consistently improving trend, and with continued political stability, we hope that it will continue in future.

Those are very welcome statistics. What is my hon. Friend doing to further grow employment and jobs in Northern Ireland and the rest of the country?

I am delighted to give some examples. Not only is unemployment now the lowest of the UK nations, at 2.9%, but the ratio of public sector to private sector jobs is rebalancing healthily. Exports have grown to more than £10 billion, and we expect a tourism surge from the golf open at Portrush. We will continue to pursue those and other measures, including the city deals that have just been mentioned.

Employment levels are improving, as the Minister has said, but does he agree that we need to attract above-average salary levels now to try to grow the economy? In that respect, the Heathrow logistics hub is an excellent project. Will he join me in pressing and persuading those behind the hub to look at Ballykelly, which is a very attractive environment?

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty battler for his constituents and for his constituency. I am sure that those involved will have heard his words and will be considering them carefully, but he is right about that and many other examples of important local investment in Northern Ireland.

Devolved Government

The short, focused set of roundtable talks aimed at restoring devolution continues. Northern Ireland’s five main political parties have reaffirmed their commitment to restoring a power-sharing Executive and the other political institutions set out in the Belfast agreement.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer and for the work that she has done thus far. Does she agree that it is absolutely vital to get devolved government up and working as soon as possible, so that the victims of historical institutional abuse receive full and fair compensation for what they have suffered?

I do agree with my hon. Friend that we need to see the restoration of the institutions. I also agree that we need to see fair redress for those victims of historical institutional abuse. I have met those victims. Their stories are heartrending and absolutely dreadful. No one should have suffered the way that they did. I am not prepared to wait for restored devolution to take action in this matter. I am determined that we will do everything we can for those victims of historical abuse and that we will take measures forward as soon as possible and not wait for restored devolution.

On that subject, the Secretary of State and, indeed, the whole House will be aware of the sense of outrage that there is across the entire community in Northern Ireland and among the victims of abuse about her approach to this issue in recent days. Frankly, many people are saying that far too much time has already elapsed, given the fact that she has the ability to make this move faster. People are outraged at the idea of having to wait another couple of years, as she appeared to indicate. Will she now undertake to bring forward measures immediately to deal with this issue?

I do not shy away in any way from my responsibilities in this area, and I am absolutely determined that we will act as soon as we can. The two years the right hon. Gentleman referred to is an estimate by the civil service of Northern Ireland; it is not an estimate that I have put forward. As he will know, following the end of the consultation that I asked the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland to conduct, a number of decisions need to be taken—decisions that require ministerial input. I have asked the five parties in Northern Ireland to assist me in getting a resolution to those questions as soon as possible, so that I can act as soon as possible, as I am determined to do.

The Secretary of State will be aware that this is one but probably the most terrible example of a whole series of decisions that have cross-community and cross-party support but that she has refused to do anything about, even though this place and her Government are responsible for the administration of Northern Ireland. The fact of the matter is that people are being told that she has now placed another series of questions that need to be answered, and people see this as further delay. What are the questions that she now wants further answers to, who originated those questions, when did they first come to her—when were they put on her desk —and why is this being used as further reason to delay the proper process of compensation for these victims?

I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman—he is an honourable man who works very hard for his constituents and for Northern Ireland—but I disagree with him on this matter. The head of the civil service and Executive Office has put forward 15 questions that need a response. I have asked the parties in Northern Ireland to help me to get decisions on those questions. But I am not shying away from my responsibility in that area; I am merely asking them if they will help me to answer the questions that David Sterling has posed to me to enable me to take this to the next stage so that we can deliver for the victims as soon as possible.

The head of the civil service in Northern Ireland, David Sterling, has asked for legislation to be made in this place. When the Secretary of State talks about action on historical institutional abuse, is she talking about bringing legislation through this House?

I have said on many occasions that I am prepared to do the legislation wherever it is quickest that we do it. I want to see redress for these victims as soon as possible. But there are some fundamental questions that David Sterling has posed that need answers, and I will get to those answers more quickly if I have the support and co-operation of the parties in Northern Ireland in working with me.

15. Does the Secretary of State understand the level of public outrage that there is about this? It has been two years since the inquiry reported. Thirty survivors of institutional abuse have died since then. The victims were told this week that they might have to wait another two years before anything is done. Will she act, and act now, so that these good people can get some sense of justice before more of them die? (910965)

I know the sense of outrage. I have met those victims. I want to see action. It is quite right that the parties in Northern Ireland, when they were in government, set up this inquiry. It is absolutely right that they did that, and I applaud them for doing so. There is an opportunity for us to make progress on this quickly, but I cannot do it alone. I need the guidance and support of those in the parties in Northern Ireland, because ultimately they will be the Ministers who will have to implement whatever institutions and whatever system is created. I need their support so that we can make progress quickly. I am not delaying anything. I am determined to act for these people, and I will do whatever it takes to do so.

The House will be aware that today, to the very day, is the 21st anniversary of that occasion when a sunshine ray of hope pierced the dark clouds in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement was ratified, and we must give the victims and survivors some of that hope. Their agony is becoming unendurable. I do not doubt the good nature and the good will of the Secretary of State. She met the survivors, as did I. But we cannot—we must not—wait for another two years. It would be impossible—unconscionable—for us to do so. Thirty-six have already died; we cannot let more die. I can assure the Secretary of State that she will have the support of Labour Members, but can she please bring this forward and end the agony and the misery of these survivors and victims?

I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s offer of support. We spoke about this matter yesterday. I am determined to take this forward as quickly as possible. It would be good to work with him in addressing the fundamental questions that need a response before legislation can be finalised. We are also working with Sir Anthony Hart to get answers to those questions, because we need to get this right. There is no point doing this in haste if we fail to deliver for the people who deserve redress as soon as possible.

Confidence and Supply Agreement

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Prime Minister on the continuation of the Government’s confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist party. (910955)

6. What recent discussions she has had with the Prime Minister on the continuation of the Government’s confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist party. (910956)

The Secretary of State has not had any meetings with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the confidence and supply agreement. The agreement is between the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party for the length of the Parliament, and as the agreement makes clear, the Secretary of State is not involved in confidence and supply discussions.

Last year, I met two incredibly brave women, Sarah Ewart and Denise Phelan, who have been directly impacted by Northern Ireland’s near total abortion ban and are working with Amnesty UK to change the law. Their harrowing experience of being unable to access safe and legal abortion in Northern Ireland demonstrates the reality of that restrictive regime. In Denise’s case, the foetus died and decomposed inside her. When will the Secretary of State realise that her Government’s agreement with the DUP is holding back the human rights of women in Northern Ireland, and what is she going to do about it?

I am not quite clear what the very important and, I agree, very difficult issue of abortion laws in Northern Ireland has to do with the confidence and supply agreement. It is not in the confidence and supply agreement at all. It is a very difficult and knotty issue that needs to be addressed as soon as we can get the Stormont Parliament up and running.

Can the Minister confirm whether there have been ongoing discussions between any members of the Cabinet and the DUP, seeking support for the Prime Minister’s latest attempt to bring back her Brexit deal? If so, will the new DUP bung be subject to the Barnett formula?

I tried to make this clear earlier, but let me repeat it, so that everybody is crystal clear. The confidence and supply agreement is not something that the Northern Ireland Office gets involved in, and rightly so. It is done at a much more senior level between No. 10 and through the usual channels, and it is not something that the Northern Ireland Office would have any particular participation in.

Will the Minister outline the benefits that confidence and supply one—I use that term in anticipation that we will have another—has brought to the population of Northern Ireland?

There has been a great degree of investment in Northern Ireland as a result of the confidence and supply agreement; the hon. Gentleman is right. There has been extensive spending. We have so far spent £430 million in Northern Ireland on things such as health, education and infrastructure. There is a further £333 million, subject to Parliament’s approval, and the remaining £323 million will be allocated in due course.

The Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) simply was not good enough. The current confidence and supply agreement between the Tories and the DUP has denied Scotland a total of £3.4 billion in Barnett consequentials. Would the Minister care to find out what the next bribe to the DUP will cost the people of Scotland, so that we can tell them?

It is very clear that the confidence and supply agreement does not incur Barnett consequentials and is separate. In that respect, it is rather like the city deals. I gently point out to Scottish National party Members that Scotland has done extremely well out of the city deals—it has had something like £1.25 billion. It is all very well them gesturing that away, as if it is nothing at all, but this is real money going into important investments in local economies across Scotland, as it is in Northern Ireland as well.

Local Elections

7. What assessment she has made of the effect of the results of the recent local elections on the political situation in Northern Ireland. (910957)

I have had discussions with the five main parties in Northern Ireland since the local elections, and they have all reaffirmed their commitment to restoring a power-sharing Executive and other political institutions set out in the Belfast agreement.

As someone who is half Northern Irish—in fact, proudly half Northern Irish—I am well aware of the profound sectarian issues that have scarred the nation for many hundreds of years. Consequently, I was delighted to see that the party that did best at the local elections, with the highest increase, was the non-sectarian Alliance party. Would the Secretary of State share with me the joy at seeing that tremendous non-sectarian result?

The message I took from the local elections is that what people on the doorstep want is restored devolved government as soon as possible and that is what I am working to deliver.

Does my right hon. Friend share my hope that, having got the local elections under our belts and on the cusp of the European elections—with both of those out of the way—a really firm, positive focus can be placed by all parties on restoring the devolved Assembly in Stormont?

I know that the parties in Northern Ireland are determined that they will do all they can to deliver restored devolved government. That is what is best for the people of Northern Ireland and it is what the people of Northern Ireland want. But this will not be easy—there are challenges—and I ask that we all offer our support to the parties in Northern Ireland to help them to take those difficult decisions.

Would the Secretary of State like to comment on or make an assessment of the election of Councillor Gary Donnelly—former spokesperson for the 32 County Sovereignty Movement—in the electoral area where the murder of innocent by-stander Lyra McKee took place and where police and bystanders were unapologetically and indiscriminately fired towards; and what progress has been made in that murder investigation and the process as well?

Very good in the use of a sentence. I repeat that the lesson I took from the local elections was that people want restored devolved government as soon as possible.

Legacy Consultation

8. What recent progress she has made on the consultation on addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. (910958)

As the House heard earlier, we had over 17,000 responses to the consultation, many of them containing tales of personal tragedy and loss, so I hope that everyone will understand the need to consider them all respectfully and carefully. The process is almost finished and I hope that we will be able to publish an analysis of the views they contain—[Interruption.]

Order. This is very unfair on the Minister, who is answering a question about the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. This is a matter of the utmost seriousness and solemnity and I think that the Minister and the questioner should be accorded respect.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was just finishing my remarks by saying that the process of considering those tragic submissions is almost finished and I hope that we will be able to publish an analysis of the views they contain very soon.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we must listen carefully to this consultation and does he agree with the words of the Secretary of State in the foreword to the consultation:

“amnesties are not the right approach and”

the Government

“believes that justice should be pursued”?

Yes, I do. Any solution must allow both unionists and republicans to achieve closure, and for all of Northern Ireland to draw a line and move on. Otherwise it will not last. We have been working closely with the political parties in Northern Ireland, as well as colleagues across both Houses, on the way forward and, last week, the Secretary of State met the Victims’ Commissioner and legacy groups as well.

Part of the dark past of Northern Ireland is also the question of historical institutional abuse. The Secretary of State has said that she now intends to act. The victims groups this week called on her to stand down and resign. She needs to regain their confidence. She needs to give a very clear timetable as to when she will take action in this House and elsewhere. Will the Minister now make it clear when that will happen?

I thought I heard just now the Secretary of State doing a pretty good job of showing the personal commitment and the urgency with which she is treating this. I am afraid I cannot add any more detail to the timetable, but I hope everybody here will have understood and heard the passion in her voice and the determination to move this forward promptly and swiftly.

Prosecution of Veterans

9. If the Government will bring forward legislative proposals to prevent veterans who have previously been investigated and cleared of illegal shooting incidents in Northern Ireland being prosecuted for those incidents. (910959)

My hon. and gallant Friend gave a very powerful speech on this on Monday, and I would encourage anybody here who has not heard it to go back and listen again. I think he and I agree that the current situation is not working for anyone. The question is not whether things need to change, because they clearly do, but how, so we have laws that work for police veterans as well as armed forces, for unionists and for nationalists, for victims and their families on all sides of the community, and that bring truth and justice and closure so society can move on. We will bring forward proposals as soon as possible.

As an ex-soldier, and now a Member of Parliament, I am ashamed that my Government have not sorted this matter out. I ask the Minister, and especially the Secretary of State, who has been in post longer—how much longer before it can be sorted out, and are you not ashamed?

My hon. and gallant Friend, having served in Northern Ireland, speaks with huge authority on this matter. I suspect that successive Governments have to share some blame for failing to fix it over many years. Clearly, as I said in my previous answer, the situation cannot be allowed to continue—it is not right; it is not just. It must be sorted out as promptly as possible. On that, I hope that he and I agree.

It was with regret that yesterday we got the revelation from the Government—through a written ministerial statement, rather than an oral statement—about the proposals for the way forward. We should hang our heads in shame that we intend to treat service personnel who served in Northern Ireland differently from those who served overseas. When I questioned the Attorney General on the issue on 31 January, he said clearly that to treat service personnel differently would plainly be wrong. He was right, Minister, was he not?

The important thing, as we heard repeatedly in last week’s urgent question and in Monday’s Westminster Hall debate, is that for those servicemen and women who served under Operation Banner it felt the same no matter what. Our challenge is that, if we are to come up with an answer that will work when it is taken to court by the lawfare-mongers, as it inevitably will be, we must have something that works on the basis of the different legal starting points for things that happened in the UK, as opposed to things that happened abroad, but that ends up with an answer that feels the same to our servicemen and women and provides them with the same robust protections no matter what.