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Political Process in Northern Ireland

Volume 661: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2019

With permission, I wish to make a statement about the political process in Northern Ireland.

As the House is aware, on 26 April we announced a new phase of political talks aimed at restoring the institutions set out in the Belfast agreement on a sustainable basis.We said then that we would review progress at the end of May. I wish to confirm to the House that we have done so and have concluded that talks should continue and intensify.

Since the talks process started on 7 May, I have held a number of roundtable meetings involving party leaders and, as appropriate, the Irish Government in accordance with the well established three-stranded approach. In addition, working groups have been meeting regularly over the past four weeks led by current and former senior officials from the Northern Ireland civil service. These working groups have covered issues in five areas: the programme for government; transparency, accountability and the operation of the Executive; reform of the petition of concern; rights, language and identity issues; and improving the sustainability, stability and operation of the Belfast Good Friday agreement institutions as a whole. The process has made good progress thus far, and there is now a genuine but narrow window to reach agreement.

First, let me say that it is my belief that there is a genuine will among the parties to reach an agreement and to return to devolved government. I am grateful for the constructive manner in which they have engaged with this process, and with each other, to date, and I am hopeful that that collective leadership will continue through the next phase of talks.

Secondly, on the substance of the talks, it is clear that there are a number of areas in which a consensus can be found across a range of issues, but there remain real and substantial areas of disagreement. The issues that the parties are grappling with are complex and sensitive. They have approached them in a spirit of engagement and with a willingness to find solutions. I have said from the outset of this process that it is important that the parties have the space to discuss these issues, to build trust and relationships and to find common ground and compromise, and that continues to be the case.

However, I am under no illusions. The people of Northern Ireland need and deserve to see functioning political institutions up and running and to have decisions taken by locally accountable, democratically elected representatives. So while the prospects for agreement are real, the window for agreement is narrow. The Government remain willing to do what is necessary to make this talks process a success. It will, however, take continued good will, engagement and leadership across the parties to reach agreement.

Northern Ireland is a part of our United Kingdom with tremendous strengths and even greater opportunities. Today, unemployment in Northern Ireland is at record lows while employment is at record highs. The economy is growing, tourism is booming. Northern Ireland is a great place to live, work, do business and invest. But it could be doing even better. Central to that is political stability and the restoration of all the institutions in the Belfast agreement.

The appalling killing of Lyra McKee in April was a stark reminder of the importance of ensuring that the hard-won peace and stability in Northern Ireland is not put in jeopardy. There is a responsibility on us all—the Government and those of us in this House and the other place, and the Northern Ireland parties themselves —to ensure that that does not happen. That requires renewed faith in the ability of the institutions of the Belfast agreement to deliver for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. This process presents an opportunity to build that renewed faith, and I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for prior notice of her statement. Like her, I think it is right and proper to mention, these weeks on, the murder of Lyra McKee. I say that partly because I also want to mention the targeted and malign attempt to murder a Police Service of Northern Ireland officer in Belfast in recent days. This House, this country of ours and these two islands have to recognise that tensions are rising as we speak, and those tensions must be dealt with and a constitutional means of challenging those who would do us harm is the right and proper way to proceed.

The Secretary of State spoke with some optimism about the situation and that reflects the conversations I have had with those closely involved in the talks process. People say to me that there is a credible mood that all parties are searching for solutions, and I applaud that and commend those who engage in those endeavours. However, the Secretary of State also said that there is only a very narrow window in the political calendar. She is right, and that narrow window will close in the not too distant future.

In the meantime, many things in Northern Ireland are simply not going in the right direction. Decisions are not being made that would be being made in any other part of this country of ours. We have discussed education and health in this Chamber before, and I want to mention the Derry and Strabane city deal; making it come into operation with the match funding depends on having a functioning Executive. These things really do require an Executive and the people of Northern Ireland are paying a high price for the fact that that does not exist.

So there is pressure; there is pressure on local politicians, but frankly there is pressure on the Secretary of State and on the Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who I know has, along with the Secretary of State, been attentive in making sure that he was present at those talks. However, the Secretary of State did not mention the Prime Minister or the Taoiseach. I appreciate that the Prime Minister will be in office for only a limited time, but it is still an office of profound importance and her capacity to influence the talks process is real. I hope that she will engage with this in her last few days in office, and that her successor, whoever that might be, will also commit to the talks process. It would be more than a shame to miss that opportunity.

The Secretary of State said that there would be no running commentary on the talks process, and that is right and proper, but we know that there are substantive issues that still divide the parties. Are those issues being addressed in the working group? I am not asking whether they exist in the working group; I am asking whether we are moving towards tangible solutions to the questions that divide the parties. I will not go through a whole list of the issues, but the petition of concern has been recognised by most of the parties as an area in need of reform. I say to the Secretary of State in good faith that there is a possibility that some of those issues would be better dealt with in Westminster if they cannot be dealt with through the Stormont process, and she knows that the Opposition will assist the Government in that process if she takes that route. Will she tell us whether there are areas in which it might now be appropriate to consider Westminster legislation?

Finally, I know that the Secretary of State had consultations last week on the results of the inquiry into historic institutional abuse. Will she update the House on that today? We have said before that the victims of that abuse deserve recognition, resolution and justice, and it would be unconscionable if, in the middle of an optimistic talks process, their plea and their plight were lost.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his offer of support for the process that we are going through. I know that he speaks regularly to the parties in Northern Ireland, and that he has offered his support and that of his party to enable those parties to find the space they need. We have to be clear that these are difficult issues, and there will need to be give and take on all sides in order to reach an accommodation. That will require difficult decisions to be taken, but they will be taken for the right reasons and I am grateful for any support that he can give.

The hon. Gentleman was right to refer to the attempt on the life of the PSNI officer over the weekend, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the operational details. This once again reflects the real threat faced by police officers, prison officers and others in Northern Ireland. We should be clear that there is no excuse for the behaviour of the dissident terrorists who carry out these activities. They cannot hide behind a lack of devolved government or any other issue to excuse their behaviour. They are the only ones responsible for it, and there is no excuse for it. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that those issues exist in a way that they simply do not exist in his constituency or in mine.

The hon. Gentleman rightly talked about the optimism and positive mood of the talks. There is no doubt that all the parties have approached the talks in the right frame of mind and with the right determination. He was also right to say that there is a narrow window in which we can deliver. He will know that the issues being discussed in the programme for government working group are issues of concern to people in Northern Ireland that devolved government can deliver for them in a way that no other governance arrangements can deliver.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the city deals. The Derry and Strabane city deal has just been announced, and the heads of terms for the Belfast city deal were signed in April this year. Of course the Government will do everything they can to deliver those city deals. They rightly include initiatives by the councils themselves, as is the case across the whole of the United Kingdom, but he is right to say that certain powers will need to be divested by Stormont to the councils to enable them to deliver, and that match funding will be required.

The hon. Gentleman talked about a role for the Heads of Government. It was the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach who carried out the review on the progress of the talks this weekend, and who issued a statement asking for the talks to continue and intensify. I want to assure him that the Prime Minister is very much engaged in this matter. She receives regular updates and is willing to do whatever she can; she is determined to ensure that devolved government is restored, because that is what the people of Northern Ireland need.

The hon. Gentleman talked about addressing the issues, and about the petition of concern. As I have said, a working group has been working on the reform of the petition of concern in a 90-Member Assembly, in order to deal with concerns about how the petition of concern has operated in the past. Of course we in Westminster stand ready to take forward any legislative changes that are needed. Some of the things that are being discussed would require amendment of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 itself, and of course this Government are ready to legislate where necessary. However, these are devolved matters that need the agreement of the parties and cross-community agreement, and that is what we are working to achieve.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the historic institutional abuse inquiry, and I want to assure him that I am working relentlessly to make progress on that matter. As he knows, the problem was that Sir Anthony Hart reported to the Executive after the Executive had collapsed. Despite all the efforts to restore the Executive since January 2017, that simply has not been possible, and in the absence of ministerial direction on the approach to Sir Anthony’s recommendations, it is difficult to bring forward any legislation that would be robust and that would deliver for the victims. I have met those victims, and I want to deliver for them as quickly as we possibly can. The hon. Gentleman will know that David Sterling carried out a consultation in the absence of Ministers to enable us to get the evidence we need for whatever the robust legislation that will deliver would look like, and that process has led to a number of questions being raised that need a ministerial direction. I am grateful that the parties are working with me to come up with a unified, all-party approach to questions on the make-up and powers of the redress board, for example, and on whether further top-ups are required for those people who have already received civil pay-outs. These are fundamental questions that need answers, and I am grateful that the parties are helping me to develop final legislation on this matter so that we can take it through in whatever place is most appropriate to ensure that it is delivered as quickly as possible for those victims.

Order. This is a matter of the utmost importance and I want to accommodate everybody, but I gently point out to the House that there are several hours of debate on subsequent business to follow, so economy is of the essence.

The Secretary of State mentioned the brave and fantastic work of the PSNI and the prison service, and the risks that their members run. May I remind her that there are also British Army battalions based in Northern Ireland, and that we need to ensure that they are being looked after as well? She also mentioned the five points. If there is agreement on only four of those points, surely we cannot hold out forever and a day to get a guaranteed agreement on all five of them. There must be a backstop. There must be a situation in which those in the negotiations know that if they do not sort this out, there will be direct rule.

I am sorry that my right hon. Friend is disappointed that there are only five points. There are five areas in which discussions are taking place, within which there will be areas of consensus in all the working groups as well as areas that do not yet have consensus. We are working hard to achieve that consensus. I want to see us reach a point at which all the parties in Northern Ireland can confidently go into an Executive that they know is sustainable and will deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, and at which all the institutions of Northern Ireland established under the Belfast agreement are properly constituted.

I thank the Secretary of State not only for giving me advance sight of her statement but for meeting me earlier to provide a briefing on the situation in person. That was definitely appreciated. I agree with what she said about the appalling killing of Lyra McKee. That has been a stark reminder of the importance of ensuring that the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland is not jeopardised. We have only to look at the attempt on the life of a PSNI officer at the weekend to be reminded of the fragility of that peace. She is right to say that there is a responsibility on us all—the Government, the parties in this place and the Northern Ireland parties themselves —to ensure that the peace is not jeopardised, and the tone and manner in which we debate these issues is of the utmost importance. The SNP and I wish her well in delivering the hopes of all in Northern Ireland in the coming weeks.

Given the narrow window of which the Secretary of State speaks and the criticism of the level of intensification of the talks yesterday, with previous talks in Northern Ireland involving round-the-clock discussions, when will the Government seek to ramp up the intensity? Have the Governments outlined to the parties what actions they will take if the current talks are unsuccessful? What progress has been made on the reform of the petition of concern, which has the potential to unlock various other areas of disagreement?

Reports in the Belfast Telegraph this morning suggest that the backstop will form a key part of the negotiations between the DUP and the UK Government over a new confidence and supply agreement. Given what I will call the “divergent” views of the Northern Ireland parties on the backstop and Brexit itself, is the Secretary of State concerned that the anticipated confidence and supply negotiations may undermine and overshadow any progress made during the current talks?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. I was pleased to be able to sit down with him to discuss the role that he can play. He is quite right to talk about the tone and manner in which we discuss such matters. Speculation about what may or may not be matters of consensus or disagreement—this is not directed at the hon. Gentleman—does not help in this situation. If what we all want is the restoration of devolution, it is important that we do not speculate or try to second-guess, and that we allow the parties the space they need.

As for the intensity of the talks, we have already changed our approach following the statement from the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach over the weekend. The working groups have done great work, but we are now elevating the issues to leadership level, and this week is about airing those matters and intensifying the talks. I do not want to consider what might happen if the talks fail, because we cannot give anyone an excuse for failure. This is about how to succeed and get government restored.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to the Government’s confidence and supply arrangements and Brexit, and I want to be clear that Brexit is not a part of the discussions. The talks are about how we re-establish government to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland on the issues that are Stormont’s responsibility. The confidence and supply arrangement is something for the usual channels.

Civic society in Northern Ireland wants somebody to bang people’s heads together to ensure that the talks do not fail and that devolution is put back on its feet. In thanking my right hon. Friend for her statement, may I ask her what scope may exist to identify a George Mitchell-like character who could fulfil that role, act as an honest broker and ensure that the flame of hope that was lit with the sad and tragic murder of a journalist is not extinguished on the altar of intransigence?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about civic society, which has played a role in the talks so far. We have had engagement with Church leaders, who have had their own initiative to get the party leaders together with civic society. Representatives of civic society have also had the opportunity to meet the party leaders to discuss their issues with them. The point of that meeting was that, yes, it is important that civic society can make its points to the leaders about what it wants to see government deliver, but it is also important that civic society recognises that everybody will not get what they want on day one. Civic society needs to show the same restraint that we are asking politicians to show.

I am pleased to say that Senator Mitchell visited Northern Ireland a couple of weeks ago, when he was able to come to the talks to add his support for the work that is happening. I want the talks to succeed, and I am prepared to consider anything that will help that. At the moment, however, the mood is right, the atmosphere is right, and we need to keep working hard on that.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. After the outrage expressed following the killing of Lyra McKee, the attack on the PSNI officer shows the depths of depravity of the terrorists who entirely disregard what the communities are saying. Sadly, they will not desist even if the Assembly is up and running, because David Black was murdered when devolution was going on. Such people need to be tackled resolutely. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that everything is being done to ensure proper co-ordination with the Garda Síochána, and that the police are given the resources and everything they need to tackle this scourge in Northern Ireland?

On the talks themselves, may I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that the three-stranded approach to which she referred is kept sacrosanct, so that Northern Ireland’s internal affairs are a matter for the Northern Ireland parties and Her Majesty’s Government?

On the latter point, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is the case. He also talked about the threat from dissident terrorists, and he is right that the threat will exist no matter what, but it flies in the face of what people across the community want. We all stand ready to do whatever is required. I spoke to Deputy Chief Constable Martin yesterday, and I continue to offer whatever support is required by the PSNI, which works closely with the Garda Síochána, to ensure that we are all tackling the threat.

I know that dealing with the legacy of our troubled past is a priority for the Secretary of State. Further to the point just made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), does the Secretary of State agree that those who argue that the PSNI should be required to police the past as well as the present are plain wrong? The police need extra resources, not to devote resources towards things that happened 40 years ago—important though they are for the innocent victims. We need a separate, distinct, focused process to deal with the past, and we must let the PSNI get on with the job of policing the present.

The right hon. Gentleman highlights an important point that is one of the reasons why the PSNI is so keen that we make progress in reforming the institutions that deal with the legacy of the past. He will know that we consulted on that, and I will be issuing the summary document of the consultation responses shortly.

The Secretary of State knows the importance that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I am temporarily chairing, attaches to the historical institutional abuse inquiry. In response to the unanimous letter that the Committee sent to her, she said, “I do not want this urgent issue to be delayed or stalled as part of the talks process—quite the opposite.” Will she give us an absolute assurance that the matter will not get bogged down among all the other issues?

In addition—I say this carefully—could the Secretary of State possibly take some press questions the next time she makes a statement? It looks bad when she does not answer any questions while the Foreign Secretary of the Republic of Ireland answers questions for half an hour.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her temporary role as the acting Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. She is doing an excellent job, and I have been following her progress closely.

I assure the hon. Lady that I am working on the matter of historical institutional abuse in parallel. It is not part of the talks progress, but I need the parties to work with me. The parties include the Ministers who will operate the scheme, so we need to know that the redress scheme is operable and works for them and, most importantly, for the victims.

Finally, as for the criticism that I have received for making statements to the press while not answering all their questions at every moment, my priority is to see devolution restored, and I am not prepared to do anything that jeopardises that. While I am happy to speak to the press and answer their questions, I do not think anyone gains anything from speculation or the over-analysis of answers.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me and many people in Northern Ireland that we need all the parties to reach a consensus? There is no point in any single party saying, “Here are our prerequisites and demands. We will not move from them.” That is what Sinn Féin has done up until now, and that is a prerequisite for no agreement, rather than consensus.

I do not want to comment on what is going on in the talks, but I agree that we need to reach consensus, which means that all parties will need to come together and agree on a way forward that means we can restore devolution.

The Secretary of State, in reply to the shadow Secretary of State, said that decisions have to be made. She will know that at least five decisions have to be taken before the end of June. She has already covered the issue of historical inquiries, and there is also the issue of contaminated blood and compensation, the fallout from the renewable heat incentive report—the Select Committee will be reporting on that before the end of June—and the jobs initiative retention programme with regard to my constituency. There is also a decision to be taken on a new event for Northern Ireland next year. Will she commit now that those decisions will be taken by the end of June?

I am well aware of the decisions that need to be taken. My focus is on restoring government in Northern Ireland so that decisions can be taken by those elected by the people of Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State, when questioned by the press, has talked of the need not to jeopardise the talks, but does she accept that, by refusing to answer questions and giving that role to the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic, she is allowing the impression to be given that these talks are driven by the Irish Republic and are not in the hands of the UK Government? That is in breach of the three-stranded approach there should be when it comes to these talks.

It is my view that the more speculation there is in the press and elsewhere about these matters, the less chance we have of restoring devolved government. I am not prepared to do anything that jeopardises the possibility of restoring government in Northern Ireland. The approach that other politicians take to dealing with the press is a matter for them. I have the utmost respect for the press—when I was Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, I was an absolute advocate of press freedom—and the press are welcome to scrutinise and question me at length, as they regularly do. But on these matters, I am not prepared to do anything that makes it harder for the right hon. Gentleman’s party and others to do what I know they want to do, which is to go back into government.

Will the Secretary of State outline how she intends to secure the sustainability of the institutions to ensure that never again will we be left in a position where someone can misuse the available mechanisms to bring down devolved government, leaving an entire country—Northern Ireland—rudderless for two-plus years?

Of course, the sustainability and stability of the Executive working group has been looking very carefully at these issues. It is not about what I will do to ensure that; it is about what the parties agreed to do. Obviously, if changes to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are required, the Government stand ready to take those measures. I urge the parties to recognise the need and the public desire to do the right thing and restore devolution. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that nobody wants to see us ever again in this position of two and a half years without devolved government.

I thank the Secretary of State, the shadow Secretary of State and all colleagues who mentioned the outrageous attempted murder of my constituent in my constituency on Saturday.

The Secretary of State is right about the need for constructive engagement, and she has fairly reflected that there has been constructive engagement over the past four weeks of this talks process. Although she recognises that consensus is emerging on some issues, the more difficult issues still need to be addressed and the timescale seems quite short.

The Secretary of State knows that the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 allows a period of five months, which does not expire until August. Without wishing to use all of that time, does she realise that the narrow window may need to be extended to achieve a good result?

The hon. Gentleman is right to make the point that the Act expires towards the end of August. The Act has enabled decisions to be taken in the absence of Ministers that could not otherwise be taken, but it does not allow for the decisions that we need to be taken—that requires Ministers. I do not think the people of Northern Ireland want to wait any longer than they have to wait to see government restored.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are difficult issues that will require a lot of accommodation from all sides in order for us to achieve restored government, which is what we want to see, but I do not think that extending time limits or putting in new milestones helps us to achieve that. What we need to do is to get down to business and get the agreements that we so desperately need.

We welcome the statement but, to follow on from my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), an extension will be required to allow permanent secretaries to make decisions should we not have the Assembly up and running by August, and it is highly unlikely that we will have an Assembly by that stage. In the vacuum that has been created, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) highlighted, decisions need to be made, and will have to be made, on a number of strategic issues. Will measures be put in place to ensure that, in August, permanent secretaries can move ahead and make decisions?

As I said in response to an earlier question, I do not think we should be talking about what happens in the event of failure. That is not what people want to hear. They do not want to hear about the second or third best option; they want to know that the best option of restored government will be achieved.

I know how hard the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the DUP are working on this, and I am very grateful for the hard work to date and for the very positive attitude that has been displayed by them and by politicians from across all parties in Northern Ireland. I know how tough this is, and I know how difficult it is. I know this will require a big piece of work over the next few days and weeks, and I am determined that we will do everything we can to deliver that. As I say, there is not a second best option. There is only one option that really works. The risks do not get easier; the risks just increase. We need to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.